“Joanna Newsom and the New Weird America.” That is the title of the BBC web site’s feature on Miss Newsom, a singer and songwriter who’s our age and, like many of us, sounds much younger. It’s certain that she’s weird. Web sites across the Internet have, understandably, felt it necessary to assure listeners that Newsom does not have a speech impediment. Reviews of her first and, so far, only album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, have emphasized the “child-like” aspect of Newsom’s voice, yet it is just as important that she also sounds mature and even elderly. Her voice cracks and moans and sometimes sounds like a five-year-old and sometimes like a toothless grandmother singing to herself in a nursing home somewhere. The songs themselves are both old and young; the lyrics contain both fairytale kings and annoying sluts who steal her crush. There is a consonance to the songs—they seem, roughly, to be “about” love and loss—but also a startling and wonderful variety of tone and style. There is “Inflammatory Writ,” which takes us back to some Old-West-saloon-slash-literary-salon to jovially discuss the history of American letters, which directly follows “Sadie,” a ballad of incredible serenity and power.
The Milk-Eyed Mender has achieved a quiet success since its release. It’s an album of twelve songs, each in the three- to five-minute range, adding up to a rather ambitious solo debut. Newsom’s “selling point” (if you could call it that) is that she plays the harp, which sets her apart even within the group of odd birds who comprise the “neo-folk” movement in which she’s sometimes included, alongside artists like her friend Devendra Banhart and Conor Oberst. Neo-folk, like other pop, is mainly a guitar- and piano-driven thing, and though, on the album, she does play the piano (and the harpsichord), her concerts are reportedly almost entirely Joanna-&-harp. Conceptually, this setup places her neatly in the tradition of, well, Orpheus, which is not bad lineage for an artist.
But the harp also has a liquid sound that’s rich while remaining spare. Newsom’s creaky, careening voice and vivid, surreal tales cut into this palette like a gentle acid, imprinting themselves strongly but painlessly. A lyrics sheet is unnecessary among all this clarity, allowing us to follow her and “fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words!” There is nothing hidden about a single moment; she holds the cracks as long as holds the gorgeous notes. I’ve heard her voice referred to as “the bad parts of Björk,” but Björk, both vocally and in her production values, has always seemed to me to aspire towards a kind of superhumanness, while Newsom’s gift is that she sounds so very human. Some people I’ve talked to, even if they are not at all hostile to her, have approached Newsom’s unusual voice as something to be apologized for: “if you listen past the voice, the songs are really witty.” This misses the point, as it does for artists like Bob Dylan or Conor Oberst, who have also been criticized for having voices that don’t do justice to their own songs. Just as Oberst perpetually sounds on the verge of vomiting, an effect which somehow enhances both the intensity and the melodrama of his work, Newsom’s warble emphasizes the intentional gap between her old-school songs and the new-school tales they tell, which reference Saussure as smoothly and unpretentiously as they do the Chronicles of Narnia.
I guess by definition as an “indie” artist, Newsom’s phenomenon has spread by word of mouth, though she has released a video for the song “Sprout and the Bean.” Part of the appeal of her songs is this sense of being in on a secret, and not just a secret kept from non-listeners. There’s a sense that she’s telling you things that are secret even from your fellow Newsom fans, her gnomic utterances working in a particular way for you alone. “Oh my love, oh it was a funny little thing to be the ones to’ve seen,” she sings in “Bridges and Balloons,” and I feel that way during the whole album, in a kind of happy friendship, with access to a new perspective that I am lucky enough to be the only one with eyes to see. She is spoken of adoringly by other artists, including Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy, whose cover of “Peach, Plum, Pear” was my first encounter with Newsom’s music. The song stayed in my mind, and when a friend recently began to listen to her regularly, I got to know the entire album (follower that I am). And now I try and pitch her music to friends, with a kind of desperation. I find it difficult to be sensible about Newsom, and I’m left describing “Peach, Plum, Pear” as the centerpiece of the pageant that a painfully self-aware and precocious Mozart would have written for his preschoolmates, with its children’s chorus and harpsichord.
That’s as coherent as I get about her. I could pour out a great deal of bullshit about Newsom and America and its folk music tradition, but that would not be the best or fastest way into this music, which contains but is not defined by all of the influences and interests that have been attributed to it. Conor Oberst, also just about our age and the front man of Bright Eyes, has had to deal with endless comparisons to Bob Dylan, comparisons which misrepresent his own gifts and have stunted him, forcing him to take on a legend rather than just be himself. Joanna Newsom has thankfully been free of such pressures, and her album is herself, indebted to Americana but not restrained by it. The idea is nearly unique in our time, of a creative artist able to draw on a huge, indeed national, tradition while successfully resisting being limited or defined by it.
The result is the impression that you’ve heard Newsom’s music before, maybe a long time ago, but it has retained its newness and freshness. In “Sadie,” she sings, “Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender,/ you and I, and a love so tender,/ is stretched on the hoop where I stitch this adage:/ ‘Bless this house and its heart so savage,’” and it taps into the whole Little House on the Prairie Americana mythology, but with a intimation of violence and a strangeness of language that feels new. It recalls the Bob Dylan of John Wesley Harding and Bringing it all Back Home, but without the same compulsion to tell stories, even obscure ones. Her songs are more like Shaker hymns, a kind of secular prayer. Well, not precisely secular. The songs are full of religion, with the images of kings on seas and the prayers and “Lord” in “Sadie.” Newsom does that song in a light twang that is gradually replaced by more of her own voice, as if the character that she’s playing slowly disintegrates. She sings, “This is an old song,/ these are old blues./ This is not my tune,/ but it’s mine to use.” That’s how the religious references work; they can’t be eluded, since they’re what motivated the Pilgrims and the Shakers and the covered-wagon settlers she evokes, but they have lost their threatening aura and now feel merely, genuinely warm. Indeed, it’s a motto for a whole album that feels both old and new, jarring and familiar. It allows us to have the illusion of excavation, of rediscovery. She allows us, as she describes, to “suspend the notion that these lives never end,” an equivocal statement that doesn’t deny death, but gives, perhaps to music, the power to create the notion of death’s suspension.
I react this way only to a few performers who I revere and have heard, thanks to my parents, pretty much since birth: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. For all three, there is a sense, especially in the early stuff, of being comfortable within their traditions while bringing those traditions to an unheard-of perfection. There isn’t any sort of adolescent rebellion, in which what is good is equated with what is the polar opposite of what is there already. We artsy kids like to say we prefer the hallucinogenic experiments of The White Album, but those innovations wouldn’t have been possible without the even more perfect bubblegum pop apotheoses of “All My Loving,” “She Loves You,” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Indeed, these artists should interest “Organization Kids” like us, for whom rebellion from within the establishment is the only possible rebellion. Joanna Newsom is smart enough to recognize how great her source material is and to love it, just as the Beatles loved 1950s pop and Bob Dylan loved Woody Guthrie and Springsteen loved Dylan. Yet, in any of these examples, you could never go back to that source material again without the young upstart in mind. Newsom’s songs have a Shaker tune’s aesthetics, a sense of stability and permanence, but you can’t listen to recordings of those tunes now without hearing in them an anticipation of The Milk-Eyed Mender.
Newsom is grouped in her “New Weird America” with bands like Neutral Milk Hotel; her iTunes “Listeners Also Bought” Bright Eyes and Kimya Dawson, among others. She shares with them all a self-conscious childishness, but she joins that childishness to something a bit older than mere maturity. I would say that Conor Oberst and Kimya Dawson both sing like children, but they are children at the same time as they are twenty-somethings. Joanna Newsom is a child at the same time as she is pushing eighty. She seems to be in a race with Oberst to see who can go further back into the American folk tradition, but Oberst sounds—on his new I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, at least—too intent on doing battle directly with Dylan to make it, as Newsom does, into the nineteenth century, the Colonial period, and all the way back to the European dreams and folk tales that lurk dimly in the American consciousness. The Decemberists, who have a brand-new album out, do something like this, and share with Newsom a taste for writing lyrics that are enigmatic and evocative, suffused with the spirit of both Europe and the Pacific Northwest, where they’re from. They’re the full-rock-band complement to her girl-with-harp arrangement, lead singer Colin Meloy’s voice is sweet, and they will succeed on a level that is probably impossible for her, though they won’t succeed, either—at least not to a degree that would matter to a record executive, who prefers an artist like Kelly Clarkson. I do not object to mass-produced bubblegum pop; indeed, as I write this, I’m listening to Clarkson’s (sublime) new single. But if we’re comparing statements of female self-reliance, would we prefer for nourishment “But since u been gone/ I can breathe for the first time/ I’m so movin’ on, yeah yeah” or “I killed my dinner with karate/ kick ‘em in the face, taste the body./ Shallow work is the work that I do?” My friend said, “America can’t deal with Joanna Newsom.” Well, if America can’t deal with her, then America is simply fucked up.
But you’ve read far too much already about how fucked up America is. And far too few solutions to our problems, which are serious and probably unsolvable. I am not naïve enough to suggest that Joanna Newsom is in any way the cure for our national woes. But when an artist comes along who is emblematic in the international press of some creative and gentle and funny “New Weird America,” an America living in the present but aware of its past, should we not support her and love her and perhaps hope blindly that such a New Weird America might become, simply, America? I don’t think Joanna Newsom has any illusions about our country, but she seems to love it. Or, rather, she recognizes the beauty in the sadness that has created so much of its great music. “Bless our house and its heart so savage,” indeed.