In the past couple of years, Joanna Newsom has been a well-kept secret. She was known by those who listen to Smog, Devendra Banhart, or the Pleased. You could catch the occasional review of The Milk-Eyed Mender on an alternative music magazine, or a video of her with Devendra, nothing more. Then, this album happened. Pitchfork gave it an outstanding 9.4 review. At the other end of the spectrum, Sasha Frere-Jones, of the New Yorker, wrote a glowing review. She is now a little-understood phenomenon, as the commonplace remarks about her music show, ie.: 1. that her voice [or music] is "an acquired taste"; 2. that she belong to the "Freak Folk" genre; 3. that she uses words like "inchoate" or "sassafras"; 3. that she sounds like Bjork. All of this proves that professional music critics are unimaginative losers, but does not illuminate Newsom's music. It's very hard to recommend an album like this, since it does not sound like anything I've heard. It's definitely not "baroque" like the Amazon official review states. And it's not certainly "freak folk", as Newsom herself repeats over and over. In fact, it's the opposite. While freak folk is repetitive and hypnotic, this music continuously changes melodies and rithmic signatures, and the lyrics require continued attention. Never in her records, concerts or interviews does Newsom sound like a stoned singer or a lovable primitive. She is in full control, like it or not. She openly complains about her voice being "untrained", but it is much richer, flexible and interesting than the often-quoted Bjork, who is inexplicably considered master of vocal technique. Newsom's is the rare case of a educated musician who has truly internalized disparate influences (among them, West African harp tradition, Debussy and Satie, Celtic music, Appalachian folk, Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan, the precision of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, but also the sustained story-telling of Robert Frost, and all of the 20th century american confessional poetry), and made them into something completely new, occupying the uneasy space between high and low culture. She rescues ancient words on the verge of oblivion, to evoke images that are both feverish and distant. This song of cycles is the musical equivalent of controlled nuclear fusion. It's a rare event to hear about meteorites and pleaiades with a sense of marvel and no trace of irony, or that "last week our picture window produced a half-word heavy and hollow". Is John Donne one of her ancestors? Did H.W. stop by Nevada City, a few decades ago?
What propels this record is the unerring sense of melody, and its close connection to lyrics that are both rhapsodic and narrative. The rich orchestral arrangements help and make for a distinctive record, but I feel that the record would have been equally good had she been accompanied by her harp alone. Newsom will not age like those second-rate classical pianists and groups repackaging classical influences in their fast-aging pop hits (who can listen to Emerson Lake and Palmer any more, or Tori Amos???). Twenty years from now, this music will be as interesting, ambitious and anachronistic as it is today.