I admired Joanna Newsom's first album 'The Milk-Eyed Mender' for its blend of arty originality and folksy timelessness, but I had a hard time getting through the whole thing in one sitting because of that deranged-sounding little-girl voice. I was impressed, though, by her penchant for unusual, multi-part song structures, with the music seeming to evolve organically as the working through of a particular emotion rather than as required by convention.
This, her second album, shows considerable development along similar lines, except that rather than limiting herself to four or five-minute songs she has chosen to open out and develop her ideas across songs approaching ten minutes long and more. Initially, the music appears rather formless, and it's a little difficult catch the songs' structure; persevere, though, and amid the meandering you'll begin to hear a peculiar, inspired elegance quite unlike anything else you'll have heard. The only real comparison I can think of in popular music is with the songs The Incredible String Band were recording at their late '60s peak, around the time of 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter' and 'Wee Tam'. Kate Bush, I guess, is another possible reference point. But saying that doesn't really do justice to the uniqueness, and strangeness, of Joanna Newsom's vision. Really, I think the complex structuring of her music puts her as close to the traditions of classical music as anything in the fields of pop and folk.
She also shows considerable craft as a lyricist, particularly in her skill at internal rhyming and rhythmic variation; apart from a recurring strain of twee fantasy (dialogues between monkeys and bears, and so forth), I think there is genuine emotional and intellectual depth in the words to these songs. Better still, her singing has improved a great deal, having become smoother and more controlled. There are less of the wild high-low swings of her earlier work on this album, and in general her voice -- while I'm still not a fan of it, particularly -- grates a lot less here than on her first album. I can even manage to get through the whole thing in one listen.
I've noticed that people -- even the ones who like her music -- tend to characterise Ms Newsom as a bit of a nutcase, albeit a rather endearing one. Personally, I think she's a lot more sane and rational than she's generally given credit for; these songs, while they meander a great deal, are coherent in structure and execution, and I get the impression she knows pretty much exactly what she's doing. People just think she's weird because they don't know how to categorise her. I'm looking forward to hearing what she gets up to next.
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