If there was ever really such a thing as a freak folk scene, Joanna Newsom was far too ambitious to be contained by it. Yet that’s how we met this woman who would build her own universe of sound: as one star in a small, strange galaxy of pluckers and wailers. That seems crazy in hindsight because soon after making a name for herself she began shining so brightly that all prior context faded from view, and the world began to see her for the singular talent she always was.
The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom’s 2004 debut album, arrived alongside a wash of quirky acoustic music, much of it catalogued on Devendra Banhart’s compilation The Golden Apples Of The Sun. Newsom’s heavenly harp and unearthly voice made sense in that context, filed between Vetiver and Six Organs Of Admittance on a tracklist that seemed to codify a scene. After a full presidential term of New York cool-kid revivalism — from the Strokes’ swaggering garage rock to Interpol’s sleek, gloomy post-punk to the Rapture’s incendiary dance-punk — this earthy, mystical West Coast sound was an exciting new frontier.
It didn’t take long to wear out its welcome. Not long after the alliterative term was coined, “freak folk” blew up into a certifiable Indie Rock Trend, and when the hype inevitably began to curdle, its leading lights either receded into the underground or commenced such radical transformation that they’re hardly even remembered as part of the movement anymore — though trust that both Animal Collective and Sufjan Stevens were shoehorned into freak folk at its zeitgeist-smothering peak.
With Ys, her 2006 sophomore LP, Newsom neither withered into obscurity nor traded in her trusty harp for a rack of synthesizers. She simply honed her unmistakable signature sound into something bigger and better, establishing herself as not a mere curio but one of the greatest creative forces of her generation. Returning to the album a decade later, it’s easy to see why Newsom has endured in the public consciousness while many of her mid-aughts contemporaries — freak folk or otherwise — have faded from view. Ys is a career-making masterpiece, so on the eve of its 10th birthday, let’s celebrate it.
If The Milk-Eyed Mender played like a collection of short stories from a striking and peculiar new voice, Ys was an epic poem in five parts. Track lengths ranged from seven to 17 minutes, and most found Newsom and her harp bolstered by luxuriant orchestral arrangements, as if she’d returned from the mountainside and taken a seat in the chamber. Each song was strewn with evocative imagery: monkeys afraid of spelunking, firebreathers beneath the clover, a bookshelf’s worth of references to be decoded. (The first words on the album: “The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow/ Set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport over the pharaoh.”) It was self-consciously mythic, even named for a legendary city that was swallowed by the sea.
Yet despite an album cover that depicted Newsom as the subject of a renaissance painting, this was not geekery for geekery’s sake. The outlandish language was Newsom’s way of telling real stories about people she loved, non-linear narratives that touched on illness and discord and death. Like any fairytale worth its whimsy, there was a moral to these stories. And sometimes, as on closing track “Cosmia,” she dropped the pageantry and got painfully real: “But though I tried so hard, my little darlin’/ I couldn’t keep the night from coming in.”
Mirroring the layers of meaning in Newsom’s composition was her performance style, which vacillated wildly between formalism and casual, folksy delivery. Songs that sounded ancient suddenly veered toward Laurel Canyon and Tin Pan Alley and off into the ether. Her voice quivered and cracked with such humanity that even those of us who couldn’t decipher her symbology were swept into reverie. This was the rare instance of modern music with no real precedent, and it was so self-evidently inspired that many who initially balked at Newsom — including me — happily let down our guard and plunged headfirst into this surreal world she’d crafted.
Her debut had already won over plenty of admirers, though. Whereas Newsom made The Milk-Eyed Mender with Noah Georgeson — her bandmate in pre-fame band the Pleased — for Ys she employed three of the most accomplished names in music to help her realize her vision. Underground hero Steve Albini recorded the album in his spare, visceral style. Baroque pop icon Van Dyke Parks served as co-producer and worked with Newsom on string arrangements, helping the album’s lengthy suites to bloom into staggering beauty. Experimental OG Jim O’Rourke lent his magic touch to the mixing boards. You can hear each collaborator’s contribution in the fringes of the frame, the care with which they handled Newsom’s music. It’s as if they understood they were handling something precious and powerful — an artist who not only transcended her breakout moment but seemed to exist outside time itself, on a celestial plane of her own making.