Listen to this song by avant-folk harpist, singer, and orchestrally-minded songwriter Joanna Newsom. It’s “Sawdust and Diamonds”, a track as taken from the uniformly praised 2006 record Ys (that’s pronounced Eess, kids). The song was one of five that appeared on the album. Normally, five songs on a record equals an EP. Or, it means (eek!) prog.
But, this is neither.
Actually, at the time, it was hard for many to figure out what this was. It was, and is, kind of it’s own thing. This is most likely why it made so many end-of-year lists across the music journalism spectrum. In part, it’s singularity is what sells it.
But in what sense?
Newsom’s vision made this song a meandering, instrumentally spare, and elusive thing that can’t really be called a pop song. It’s more like a folk song, sung using words that sound very much like they’ve been translated into English from some very old, possibly dead language. Yet, the beauty of the way the words sound together makes for some compelling listening, even if there is no linear narrative to be found.
This is a song that is steeped in Romanticism (capital “R”!), with image built upon image, with some images being crystalline in their beauty, while others are just odd. The turns of phrase are gossamer delicate. Yet, there is passion, and even aggression found in them too. It seems like it’s coming from a very old place, contrasted by a voice by someone relatively young.
And what about that voice, which is oddly accented and difficult to pin down in any one style? It certainly wraps itself around some very non-traditional pop verbiage. “Articulation”, “gibbering”, “bereft”, and “knock-kneed” all make appearances. It’s an odd voice, but distinct. It’s tender and insistant all at once, and it’s a dealbreaker for a lot of listeners. But, one of the roles her voice plays in this song is to get you to go beyond it, and to go beyond how you expect the words to sound in the context of the song. It separates them from the singer. In a way, this frees up the musicality of the language itself.
I think the reason that Ys made so many best-of lists is because it ultimately was outside of everything in nearly every sense. And yet at the same time, it feels like a totally honest artistic statement, too. It certainly split rooms, with some crying “Emperor’s new clothes”, rather than identifying it as a brave, and singular statement. But, it reminded many that songwriting still has places to go that it’s not gone before.
Joanna Newsom followed up Ys with a tour, and a subsequent EP called Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP (geddit?). And in 2010, she followed up the album with an ambitious triple album, Have One On Me. In addition, she’s played with Devandra Banhart, Smog, Vashti Bunyan, and The Roots.
More recently in 2011, she’s released a 12″ single called “What We Have Known”. You can preview it on the Drag City Joanna Newsom page.