The incomparable beauty, the immersive world and the endlessly captivating intricacies and mysteries of Ys elevate it to the level of masterpiece.
Before someone even encounters the music, the renaissance-style portrait of Joanna Newsom welcomes a listener into a fabulous, late-medieval place and introduces them to the swallowed, mythical French city of Ys. Then comes the tracklist, consisting of only five songs, ranging in length from seven to 17-minutes long, which is a far cry from the more normal 12-song album of left-of-center folk tracks Newsom produced for her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender—not even a single harp string need be plucked before the fact that Ys moves far beyond the land of typical singer-songwriter, folk music.
But not to be discouraged by the more abstract pieces of its initial appearance, all the names of those associated with Ys—c0-produced with famed arranger and Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, recorded by Steve Albini and mixed by Jim O’Rourke—should be enough to calm any nerves and signal the brilliance of the project.
An immense orchestra sways and elevates Newsom’s winding stories and adds liveliness, presence and weight to Ys’ vast reality. The epic poems that serve as the lyrical content are heavily influenced by the trauma of the death of a close friend and familial and romantic relationships—each of the tracks, while deeply blanketed in metaphor, are biographical in narrative, attaching to them a closeness and impact that is undeniable even after mythical abstraction.
Newsom’s delicate harp and sweeping strings lead listeners through the expansive and mysterious cosmos on “Emily,” written with the musician’s astrophysicist sister at the center of its narrative. “Monkey & Bear” draws the stars more closely to the Earth as Newsom investigates a manipulative, abusive relationship through the bestial companionship of a monkey and Ursula the bear, that might also serve as the origin story of Ursa Major. Light woodwinds add a musical air and playfulness into the song before falling into swirling hypnosis in the final third of the song, mapping the establishment and crumbling of the romantic partnership.
From the fallout of the relationship of the previous song, “Sawdust & Diamonds” grapples with the existential—the death of a partnership, of a friend and of an unborn child. The sparsity of Newsom’s gentle harp playing without accompaniment sets the song apart from the rest of the album, an ambiance and intensity created not by maximalism or density but by crushing absence.
“Only Skin” is the grand culmination of all the themes of Ys and a composition dedicated to feminine sexual strength, toxic and abusive masculine activity, love and loss. The nearly 17-minute song glides and builds upon soft strings into an emotionally and musically climactic duo between Newsom and her then-partner Bill Callahan. While “Only Skin” might be the musical opus of Ys that ties together so much of the album, it is the comparatively brief “Cosmia” that marks the exit from the world of Ys. Newsom dedicates the final phrases and coda of her masterwork to her late friend, with an affecting and aching threnody that articulates the unresolvable distress of such a loss.
The five narratives of each of Ys’ tracks are rich in detail, metaphor and allusion—one could scour through the lines of these songs for an eternity without finding each easter-egg or secret meaning. Four years later, Newsom would release the two-hour, triple-album, Have One on Me, and Ys still probably stands as the most enveloping of all her work. And, by charting on the Billboard 200, Ys, despite its relatively inaccessible construction, marked the arrival of Newsom as the world’s most prominent harpist and a genius creator, also showcasing to anyone still unsure of a five-song, renaissance and myth inflected harp album that it is not just a record for the nerdiest of music listeners.
The incomparable beauty, the immersive world and the endlessly captivating intricacies and mysteries of Ys elevate it to the level of masterpiece—the apex of her faultless work and an entire universe in which each brick has been laid just so, each brushstroke taken with purpose and assurance, every comma and vocal inflection signifying seemingly everything.