Joanna Newsom The Milk-Eyed Mender

If something portends future classic status for an album, it may well be contemporary artists covering songs from the record shortly after its release. This was certainly the case with Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, which will be 10 years old on Sunday. The Decemberists covered “Bridges And Balloons” for years, including a baroque reading at Terminal 5 in 2009. I saw M. Ward deliver an affected cover of “Sadie” at the Bowery Ballroom in March of 2005, while Final Fantasy gave a slovenly audience a stunning, mechanized transformation of “Peach, Plum, Pear” at a high-profile gig opening for Arcade Fire at Irving Plaza in January of 2005. Put together, these covers echo Newsom’s sentiment so presciently articulated on “Sadie” — “This is an old song, these are old blues. And this is not my tune, but it’s mine to use.” The lyric effectively articulates the elusive appeal of her magnificent album: She was lassoing a cosmic alchemy — a world of blues, folk, bucolic campfire singalongs; songs of pain, the ache of memories, and ultimately, the infinite possibilities for redemption and healing. She was drawing from a collective well of sepia-tinged musical antecedents, channeled through her elegiac harp plucks, fulsome piano melodies, and a voice that poignantly conveyed a certain vulnerability that never crossed the line into tawdry sentimentality. She even chose to cover the Appalachian traditional song, “Three Little Babies,” something of an anomaly on the album stylistically. The vocals on the track sound like they’re emanating from a far away room, as if you have your ear pressed to the door and are struggling to discern just what’s being sung, and the piano melody’s oddly muted, as if it’s being played into an answering machine. But Newsom sings the tears out of the track, as if it’s a paean to her lost loved ones from the past, present, and future. Time and space truly are out of place here.

She was often disparaged by her detractors for her vocals, derogatorily referred to by critics as “poncy” or “whimsical.” But these weren’t cloying affectations. She was serving the song with her singing style, in the vein of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Vashti Bunyan. Just see the brilliant, yearning opener of The Milk-Eyed Mender, “Bridges And Balloons,” for a salient example. When Newsom urges, “Oh my love, it was a funny little thing, to be the ones to have seen,” it’s a nearly overwhelming expression of grief and loss, and her vocals, subtly rising up an octave, adroitly mirroring the gravitas of the lyrics.

Newsom’s album emerged from the same fertile creative territory explored in 2004 by the likes of kindred spirits such as Devendra Banhart’s Rejoicing In The Hands and Niño Rojo, CocoRosie’s La Maison De Mon Rêve, Antony’s then in-progress I Am A Bird Now. Basically pick any track off of The Golden Apples Of The Sun, a Banhart-curated compilation released by Arthur Magazine that served as something of a holy grail in guiding listeners to these artists for a primer. Banhart’s compilation illustrated the inclusive ethos at the heart of this nascent yet fecund movement, and Newsom’s music was the supreme example of this generous spirit, as she shared the stage with the likes of Banhart, Vetiver, and Antony throughout 2004 while touring The Milk-Eyed Mender. She genuinely seemed to buy into the fact that she was a part of a whole much greater than herself, and to paraphrase a quote from another traditional song, “this world was not her home, she was just passing through.” But she was going to make damn sure to make an indelible imprint while she was here and vital.

Newsom told Under the Radar’s Chris Tinkham in 2010, “I think there was a misconception about the songs. I got a lot of, ’Oh, these are like fairy tales, nursery rhymes,’ like a lot of comments that were really coded as ’babyish’ or ’youthful’ or ’innocent.’ And that was so not me. I don’t even know how to describe what I was, but I so didn’t identify with any of that, and I didn’t feel my music was that. I guess, in retrospect, now, when I listen to it, I can kind of hear it more. But, at the time, I remember being initially really shocked. I knew I was doing something kind of weird, or rather that it would be perceived as kind of weird, but I didn’t really identify with a lot of the words people were using to describe it.”

And really, such facile descriptors do little to elucidate the divine fire Newsom was playing with on the album. Like most great records, The Milk-Eyed Mender seemingly exists impervious to outside influences, finding its own insulated corner of the world. Newsom’s purview expresses unsurpassable feelings of love, quixotic wonderment, and awe at the ceaseless beauty of the small things in life. The lyrics are often entropic and frivolous, even on paper; non-sequiturs sprinkled with playful humor. But when Newsom sings them in her voice so brilliantly described by filmmaker and musician Kevin Barker in Arthur Magazine as “eight and eighty, dawn and dusk,” they’re revelatory reveries. This isn’t hyperbole. She’s that good.

Newsom would go on to grander and equally brilliant achievements (the Van Dyke Parks-produced vertiginous opus Ys, the audacious triple LP Have One On Me). Barker’s documentary The Family Jams adroitly captured the milieu of the early era and Joanna Newsom’s personality was on full display, whether she was performing unadorned with her harp, enthusing over meeting Linda Perhacs in California, or more gravely, getting the news that a childhood friend had died suddenly. It was disarming, affecting, and true, much like her music. The film captures a special time in Newsom and the other musicians’ lives, and when a stage hand states towards the end of the documentary that this sort of thing could never happen again, he’s exactly right.

A posthumous Thomas Wolfe novel was titled You Can’t Go Home Again, and thankfully Newsom and the rest of these musicians never even countenanced that possibility. But they did leave us with a deep well of wonderful memories, and some of the finest albums of the ’00s, of which The Milk-Eyed Mender is the crown jewel. Buy it on vinyl and revel in its resplendent beauty. It’s aged marvelously.

Comments (23)
  1. 10?! i can’t believe its been 4 years since have one on me!

  2. I know most people usually point to Ys, but this is absolutely my favorite Joanna Newsom album. And John is right, listen to it on vinyl — records don’t get much more intimate than this. It also contains one of my favorite lines of poetry — “Never get so attached to a poem, you forget truth that lacks lyricism.”

  3. This was such a revelation to me when it arrived. It challenged me in a way that no other album had done before it. The voice, the sparse arrangements, the songs who at times seemed to come from another time (or another planet). After a few spins, I loved it, and I still do. It still moves me in a way very few records does. And for all of the shortcomings Newsom may has a singer, she has an absolutely remarkably way of using her voice.

    One of my favourite albums of all time.

  4. This is both her most and least accessible album. Structurally, the songs are shorter and less melodically complex yet on this record her vocal is definitely a lot more of an acquired taste than her more recent stuff. One of the best debut albums ever made in my opinion and Peach Plum Pear is still one of her best songs.

  5. Thanks for this piece. But I’ll never understand how Joanna Newsom is possible.

  6. a timeless masterpiece. one of those albums whose every nuance is etched on my brain, yet i can put it on any time and not be tired of it.

    now playing my vinyl, thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Should we go out–side?
    Should we break–some–bread?
    Are ya inter-es-ted?

  8. another reminder of how a new album needs to happen soon

  9. As a non native english speaker, I found Ys to be difficult, to understand and to get into.

    It was a minor let down for me since i loved the milk eyed mender so much.
    Can anybody expand on why Ys is so often said to be so good?

    I really found it ro be circumvoluted and even the melodies didnt entice me. Similarly i never got into Van Dyke Park’s song cycle..

    • It’s neat that this was written because just a couple of days ago I re-listened to Newsom’s entire catalogue. Exquisite.

      In regards to your question about Ys. I am in awe of Ys. I don’t think it’s just a great musical achievement; I think it’s one of the great literary achievements of the past while. Newsom’s wordplay is out of this world, and her vocabulary is unrivaled. Definitely not for everyone, but I find so much joy in the way she gets across ideas and/or tells stories (I mean, Monkey and Bear is an epic story).

      Overall though, it’s the ambitious scope of the whole affair. Five songs, packed with ideas that transition countless times. It’s exhausting and worth it. I’m not good at writing about music, and I’m about to take a nap (otherwise, I’d try to make this better).

    • Ys is a fantastic album, but I think it overshadows its predecessor mostly because critics were “ready” to lavish it with acclaim. Many reviewers either didn’t know what to make of The Milk-Eyed Mender or were unaware of its existence. The same rule applies to It’s Never Been Like That and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – both incredible albums, but the latter gets more attention and praise than the unquestionably superior former – or Alligator and Boxer…or Homework and Random Access Memories, or Unknown Pleasures and Closer. It happens a lot.

      Have One on Me’s reputation is even more screwed up, mostly because it received a handful of mixed to negative reviews for no other reason than that it’s a triple album. Once those critics (*cough* PopMatters *cough*) actually got around to listening to it and realized it completely justifies its considerable length, they backpedalled and made sure to include it in their year-end lists.

    • Ys is just so complete. Each song can stand on its own, but they way they come together as a whole makes each part that much more special. The music on it is so developed and exquisite, the orchestration complements her playing so well, her playing has developed even further, and the way the songs twist and turn is unparalleled. That said, it’s the lyrics that truly make the album a huge work, something that will be remembered long after she’s gone. She uses such a great mix of esoteric phrasing (In their hydrocephalitic listlessness ants mop up their brow) and heartfelt, simple statements (Pa pointed out to me for the hundredth time tonight, the way the ladle leads to the dirt-red bullet of light) and the mix really makes those more common phrase even more emotive. And that’s what really gets me: for all of the obscure and difficult stuff on here, it’s a deeply, almost painfully, emotional album, and you can tell that she puts every bit of herself into these songs. Cosmia, at the end, is such an explosive expression of love, loss and longing that I can never hear it without tearing up, and I’ve listened to it well over a hundred times.

      I love her so goddamn much.

  10. Somehow this album has totally passed me by in it’s decade of existence, and I think that is a very sad thing indeed. Thanks Gum’ for turning me on to this, even if I am 10 years late…

  11. I can’t believe that it’s been ten years. I heard this in 2004, during the death throes of my first major punk phase, and thought that it was extremely bizarre and kind of off-putting. That said, I was impressed enough by Devendra Banhart and his constant support of her that I gave The Milk-Eyed Mender a few more chances. It still didn’t click, and I stupidly missed a chance to see her on the tour for the album. For some reason, despite the tepid feelings connected to MEM, I snagged the Ys leak after Pitchfork fucked up and let it out super early. It so stunned and completely overwhelmed me that I missed two classes and listened to it four times in a row. It also so completely overwhelmed me that it shed new light on her idiosyncracies, and provided me an entrance to the Milk-Eyed Mender. I adore it now, Sadie is possibly my favorite song of all time, and Ms. Newsom is, without a doubt, my favorite artist.

    See her if you ever have the chance. She truly transforms these songs with her band, and as her voice has developed and changed she’s found even more expressiveness with the early work. When she did the orchestral shows in 2010, the band performed a nashvill-ified version of Inflammatory Writ that remains, in my mind, the definitive version of the song. Plus, her question and answer sessions with the audience as the band tunes are worth the price of admission.

  12. The first of two consensus classics from one of the greatest songwriters of our generation. I could never have predicted that Have One on Me would be even better, and I can’t wait any longer for a follow-up.

  13. For me this was less accessible than Ys – I couldn’t stand her voice at all. Wasn’t till years later I became a fan when her slightly less raw singing on Ys sort of eased me into finding it bearable.

    Now I love her voice and find it bizarre I ever felt that way, and count Milk-Eyed Mender (and Ys) among my most treasured albums from the ’00s.

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