Joanna Newsom's squirrelly voice and trickling harp are enchanting, and her first album, 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender, was dense in its folky poeticism. It tapped into a nostalgic indulgence of old bohemia--new but antiquely soft, creative yet comfortably traditional. Ys, Newsom's follow-up, also re-creates vintage Americana, but suffers from too much of that dense folky poeticism that made Milk-Eyed Mender so wonderful.
The album is only five songs long, but each song is a winding poem/story populated by the likes of monkeys, bears, girls named Emily, prairies, reeds and fires. It has the potential to be something truly epic, and the aura of being the sort of album that everyone cites 10 years from now as one of the best things to come out of this decade ... the idea of it, rather, has those possibilities, but the actuality is a horrible disappointment.
The string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks muddle Newsom's harp, bump up against her vocal melodies and seem to be competing for attention. The lyrics ramble, with occasional moments of the kind of subtle artistry that made the debut so surprising, but then often drown in their own whimsy. "Sawdust and Diamonds," the only song on the record without strings, is the only moment on Ys where it starts to sound like the record it could be: Newsom's harp pulls the fear and desperation out of her lyrics and voice, and the lyrics maintain enough of a narrative arc to hold everything together. But then the strings elbow their way back in on "Only Skin," and it is heartbreaking how much they rob us of what Ys could have been.