First Look: New Joanna Newsom LP



triple-album collection comes awfully close to being perfect. We’re telling ya,
almost perfect. She’s a voodoo chile, baby, lord knows – she’s a goddam voodoo


By Meryl Trussler


If you want to know you know by now,
because the floodgates have burst, and you were all there waiting and bracing
yourselves for the deluge. Joanna Newsom is a happening. The initiated cannot
quite believe we have this happy little anachronism breathing the same
California air as, say, Real Housewives.
She is our unreal heavenwife and we will be as precious about her as we wish.
(Cynics, take this as a warning for what follows.)


So. The third album, itself three albums.
Of course it’s good, it wasn’t going to be anything else; this girl has been a
public prodigy since the tender age of 22 and a private prodigy for years
untold before that, with her reams of fervid poetry and, if my imagination is
configured correctly, probably a thousand cute precocious sayings a day. Joanna
Newsom is a state of mind. But I digress. Have
One On Me
(Drag City) is good
but thank the stars it isn’t punch-for-punch perfect every second because that
might have something of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest factor, or a very potent smack of Stendhal syndrome,
and would entertain us to death.


As is only natural with an album spanning
two hours, not every song is the sort of distilled bliss that each fifth of Ys provided. Newsom marks a few returns
to the 3-minute pop-song, to the shipmatey sass with which The Milk-Eyed Mender was dotted, and to the occasional bouncing
piano. Good. Good. But it’s a combination of the two previous albums’
characteristics which really grabs the heart with two hands and shakes.
Harp-led epics with excruciatingly turns of phrase and melody, but with less of
a wildhorse quality about the structure than Ys. These songs are both instantly hummable and enduring. ‘’81’ does so in 4 minutes of high notes spilling
down to low in a traditional, majestic time signature as she trills: “meet me in the garden of Eden, bring a
friend, we are gonna have ourselves a time
.” It’s in this moment that that
cool floodwater of expectation is really felt. ‘Baby Birch’, at 9 minutes,
builds more slowly, prettiness repeating, repeating, little scuzzy gasps of
guitar behind, until a sudden leap upwards, an offbeat drum, vocal harmonies,
and a burst of oriental flowers for the finale.


I first encountered Joanna Newsom in 2005
at Patti Smith’s Meltdown festival, for which Smith had chosen to arrange a
homage to Jimi Hendrix. Thusly Newsom came onstage, a speck from the
nosebleeds, ears and eyes reporting a twelve-year-old. And she sat and played
‘Angel (Sweet Angel)’ and ‘Little Wing’ on her harp. It seemed an inventive and
difficult translation then. Five years later I see how fluid it was. Something
about Newsom’s compositions proves her a Hendrix child: something about the
bluesy warmth, the climbs towards transcendence. Try ‘In California’. It seems
to reduce all the lat- and longitude of the state, and all the flavours of Axis: Bold as Love into one anthem.
Mountains and deserts and prairies and beaches and Native Americana, a broader
scope than most CA songs can manage. Cawing and big bass drums. Joanna Newsom
is a miniaturist.


But music criticism must be metonymist. So
here. The third disc summarises its partners. Joanna Newsom, it states simply,
is the kind of composer who kind of redeems the world in which she lives.
‘Esme’ breaks and breaks and breaks; it smashes a galaxy against the rocks to
fall in fragments in the river; it reassures its newborn subject that “kindness prevails“.  If these 124 minutes can be reduced to one
sentiment, which they ostensibly cannot, really – let that be it. That’s the
feeling you can’t deny when you’re bonechilled and gasping after the wave.


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