OK, you're going to have to bear with me on this review as I am breaking a strict rule of mine while writing it - and that rule is to never embark on a review until you know what the album is about. To mislead the hoards of readers we have on this site with knee-jerk opinions would be a dreadful misuse of responsibility. So from the outset I will be honest and admit that I haven't got a clue what the hell is going on on this second full length from the enigma that is Joanna Newsom. The reason I am not waiting until I do know more is that I get the impression that that day will never come, but as I have firmly made up my mind that this is a work of unrivaled genius I think that is justification enough to start the review.
Clocking in at just under an hour and boasting only 5 songs, the longest being almost 17 minutes, Ys certainly is a commitment. Starting this album is an experience akin to standing at the foot of a massive mountain. You know you want to climb it but the view from the bottom makes you question whether you have it in you and it's not until you've completed the first leg of the opening 12 minutes of Emily that you start to realise what an epic journey you have ahead of you but the view from there is so special that to reach the summit fills your heart with excitement and you push on. Those who do reach the top are rewarded in ways too profound to mention. Not only is there the sense of pride on having made it this far but the strange compulsion to go straight down to the bottom and do it all again is overwhelming.
So despite not knowing anything about the meaning of this work we have established that it's quite good and so can distract ourselves with some background facts concerning it's conception and production. It follows in the footsteps of 2004's critically acclaimed debut The Milk Eyed Mender and takes it's title from a mythical Breton city that was flooded as punishment for the decadence of its inhabitants. Newsom describes dreams she had after having written the record that the title had to have a Y and an S in it and should only be one syllable, after coming across a reference to this myth she knew that Ys, pronounced 'Ees', had to be her title. The album features a whole host of stars backstage. It is engineered by Steve Albini, produced by Jim O'Rourke and all but one song is given full orchestral arrangement by Van Dyke Parks, it also has the occasional backing vocal by boyfriend Bill 'Smog' Callahan. But it's Newsom herself that ultimately makes this record what it is. Her voice achieves a much more expansive range here going from booming depth to ear-piercing squeaks to a floating beauty that is simply heart melting. Her debut had her lumped in with the acid-folk of Devandra Banhart which in my opinion didn't do her any favors. This record will undoubtedly put an end to all that as its richness and awesome scope makes it near impossible to label. Comparisons to the work of Bjork and Kate Bush are valid only in terms of vision and shear single mindedness. As time moves on it will be impossible to guess when this album was made, it has a timeless quality and no references to modern times whatsoever. (I thought I found one on Emily when what I supposed was the lyric "The media writes just what causes the light and the media's how it's perceived," turned out to be "The meteorite's just what causes the light and the meteor's how its perceived.") You get immersed in the vivid descriptions of nature and stories that are told with such a beguiling use of language that you stop trying to follow their meaning and sit back content to let your heart dance in the warmth and ease with which these magical words tumble out. There is little point in going through the album song by song as this is a piece of work where each element has to be seen in the context of the whole. It's not just the length of the songs that makes them so daunting, they feature no standard chorus structure, there is virtually no let up in the flow of expertly pronounced poetry or free flowing harp and Park's orchestration sweeps you up and catapults you across his epic cinematic landscape and each song leaves you exhausted. But the profundity of this exhaustion comes from the honesty of the artist, none of this album seems contrived or pretentious. It's one of those rare moments of originality that is self made.
You can arm yourself with as many facts as you like about this album but none of them will help you on your journey, they will only weigh you down. Just as Luke bravely put away his mechanical means of navigation on his assault on The Death Star so must we turn off logical thought on our long trek towards the summit of Mount Newsom and let some other force guide us. To do this is the only way to reach the top and once there the view will be more spectacular than you could possibly imagine.