Joanna Newsom plays harp and sings. When my five-year-old first heard her in the car, after about ten seconds he said “Oh! What a terrible voice!” Probably any discussion of Joanna Newsom has to include, somewhere, the mention that her voice isn’t for everybody. And now that’s out of the way.
Milk-Eyed Mender received all kinds of accolades on its release and landed on several best-of year end lists. Her follow-up album Ys did even better with the critics, landing on many best-of-the-decade and several best-album-ever lists. There’s a tremendous contrast between the two albums. Ys is a lush and lavish tapestry of mind-bending, fully orchestrated storytelling that plays out across five 7- to 16-minute compositions, with an all-star team behind it, including orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks and production work by Steve Albini (who has has a happy place in my Hall of Fame for his work with Nirvana and Neurosis). Milk-Eyed Mender, though, is almost exclusively Joanna. It’s her voice and a harp, or a piano, or a harpsichord.
And it seems to come from somewhere else. A different time and place, or maybe an entirely different world. The album feels like a faerie or woodland spirit stepped out of a fantasy novel and learned that there was such a thing as a “folk song,” in which someone plays an instrument and sings words about things, so she decided to try it. But instead of a guitar, she grabbed a harp (it’s an instrument), and when she tried to sing about highways and human struggle and loneliness, it came out like this:
There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road
There are some dragons who were built to have and hold
And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly
and some great bellies ache with many bumblebees
I don’t know what that means. But I know how it feels, and after eight years with this album, it still transports me and remains deeply, deeply evocative. What else can you really ask from an album? Ys is beautiful, but less surprising to me. If I told you there’s this harpist who’s making waves in the indie music community, and you nodded, then I told you she writes 10-minute songs about monkeys and bears while backed by a full orchestra, you’d probably keep nodding. Harpist, orchestra, ok. It seems to kind of fit. The thing I love about Milk-Eyed Mender is hearing the same artist put her utterly unique stamp on traditional 3- to 4-minute songs. The result is one of the more beautiful attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole I’m aware of.
And I genuinely like her voice. The moment toward the end of “Peach, Plum, Pear” where a whole chorus of Joannas join in is one of my favorite moments of the album. There’s a lot to love on this album, if you can acquire the taste for it. I will attempt to leave you with something that’s easy to love. Like all thinking people, I have a profound distaste for YouTube comments. But this one nailed it for me: “This song just gets me in the marrow, you know?” I do.