Anyone who heard Joanna Newsom's last album, The Milk-Eyed Mender will have sat on tenter-hooks for the new album, and here it is. If you didn't like that album then the chances are you'll not warm to this one, though they are quite different. The critical response has been effusive, and it is deserved. Ys contains only five tracks, the longest of which is nearly seventeen minutes. The sound is familiar, but the voice has begun to settle and the sound has begun to widen. There is much more orchestration, so the sound is often very full. Van Dyke Parks did the arrangements and conducting and is credited on the album as playing the accordion; Jim O'Rourke did the mixing; and Steve Albini recorded harp and vocals. That's quite a heavy duty set of collaboration. The lyrics are bonkers but really beautiful. They have a great sense of poetry and music about them, strange and at the same time right. The first track, Emily, contains the following:
And, Emily, I saw you last night by the river.
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water -
frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever,
in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror.
I think that this is an extraordinary achievement and you simply must hear this album. It really is just that simple.
The name of the album is also quite interesting. There is no explanation in the album jacket about the name. The only interpretative clue might be in the cover art, though even that may be enough to keep even Panofsky going for a while with its symbolic imagery. I think that it must have some medieval overtones, like those Northern European masters. The artist Vierling seems to be fond of a kind of Victorian Gothic revival medievalism (Waterhouse, that kind of thing), so I think something of this nature is going on. The name Ys then could refer to the Breton city of King Gradlon who fell in love with a druid/fairy woman, bearing him a daughter Dahut. The beautiful city of Ker Is (or simply Ys) is protected by dams with a bronze floodgate to which only the king has a key. Dahut steals the key, under varying sets of circumstances in different versions of the legend, and opens the floodgates. Gradlon's protetor saint, Guénolé, urges him to throw his (still pagan) daughter into the waters so that they may subside. He does so eventually, but the city is destroyed and becomes the Bay of Dourarnenez in Brittany. Dahut is transformed into a sprite/siren where she can still be heard singing and enchanting sailors to their watery end.
Whether any of this is supposed to have contemporary New Orleans resonances, as I've read some suggest, I am unsure. Water is certainly a very strong theme in the album, and I suspect that the story of a doomed pagan princess sacrificed to save a doomed city was too crazy for her to pass over.