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The Stylus Police: Joanna Newsom

December 19, 2011

During her recent(ish!) TED talk on nurturing creativity, “Eat, Pray, Love” author, Elizabeth Gilbert, aired the notion that the Spanish exclamation of “iOle!” evolved from the recognition of the divine (AKA “Allah!”) within transcendental performances. Incredibly interesting stuff and, at no small cost to the intricate beauty of the universe, highly unlikely to be true. Dang!

Thing is, there certainly are artists whose preternatural performances make it easy to see how such an idea about language could gain credence. Because when a piece of music reaches into your heart and makes you at least feel like you have a soul then it’s only natural to want to associate that feeling with something otherworldly. And whenever I find myself on the receiving end of this phenomenon it is usually due, as if you couldn’t have guessed, to one particular source:

Joanna Newsom.

So this is my favourite artiste (yes, with an ‘e’ on the end and everything) hence you’ll forgive a certain reticence towards analysing exactly why I find her output so singularly affecting. Not wanting to break the spell I might, very tentatively, venture that it has something to do with how her lyrical worldliness is so starkly defined in its contrast to the youthfully earnest vocal style in which it is delivered. Emboldened and ever so pleased with my own insightfulness, I might press on to reference the aesthetic synergy betwixt function and form… “Is there any art that could be rendered more perfectly than via feminine beauty?” I might ravenously ask as someone who prefers to be served by attractive waitresses not from any chauvinistic will to power, but simply because it makes the food taste better. At which point I would have careered too far into matters both philosophical and culinary when all I really meant to say is that Newsom’s body moves as enchantingly as her mind, resulting in performances that are as spellbinding to see as to hear.

So, what to listen to? What to view? Well the received wisdom is that her vocal delivery has mellowed over time, making her later output the more accessible. Personally I don’t think the travel is all that significant and with the average song-length remaining steadfastly above the three minute mark (the absolutely wonderful “Only Skin”, from Newson’s second album, weighs in just shy of seventeen minutes!) we’re clearly not looking at a Regina Spektor-style shift from the avant garde to the mainstream. Have One On Me is unlikely to seduce you if neither Ys or The Milk-Eyed Mender manage it, but by the same token each album represents an equally worthwhile excursion into the woman’s oeuvre.

And yet your wholesale adoption or wholesale dismissal of Joanna Newsom’s music isn’t really the point here. Nobody can tell you what you should love. What it’s shown me, though, is that it’s possible for an artist to take you some-place else with astounding regularity, to the point where it seems inconceivable that you ever made do without their music. Everyone has their Joanna Newsom, I suspect. Make sure you find yours.

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