March 07, 2004

Joanna Newsom "The Milk-Eyed Mender"

I will admit defeat. I have been searching and searching and searching for the words that will best describe Joanna Newsom's debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, but I can't. There's nothing wrong with admiting defeat, and I simply cannot properly describe to you Newsom's voice. It's out of this world, it really is, and I'm gonna try to describe everything around this record, because I want to let you know that this record is one of the prettiest things you'll ever hear. (Please forgive me now if my gushing and overwhelming love and confusion upset your stomach. I know of no other way.)

On the surface, The Milk-Eyed Mender is pretty much a straightforward folk record. It's pretty much her and her voice. And her harp. And her harpsichord. And her piano. And her Wurlitzer. And nothing more. Well, there's a guitar on track six, but she didn't play it. Does that help you out so far? We're talking about someone making music on musicial instruments that people don't normally make music on--or at least full albums using ONLY those instruments. Talk about creating an otherworldly musical backing--what do you expect when you play instruments not seen outside of a Heavenly choir?

But it's her voice that wins me over. It's...weird. It's beyond adequate description. It's little-girl like, kind of like Kate Bush, but not really. It has a unique country feel to it, kind of like Kristin Hersh, but not really--but kind of like a sharper Tanya Donnelly but not really. It's pretty and smooth and sad and unique and odd and it's best to only say that it's like a Victorian version of all of those artists all mixed together, but not really. People, I really cannot describe her voice to you--it's one of those rare voices that CANNOT be explained by mere music journalists, and if you find someone who can safely say "she sounds like (insert artist here)," I will tell you this--they're either lying to you, or they've only listened to her record once. It's kind of witchy, really, but not really. She's young, only twenty-one, but she sounds as if she's 600 years old, her singing coming straight out of Hamlet.

If you examine her lyrics--and I'm not much of an interpreter of lyrical form, to be honest with you; I take the artist at their word, and I don't question why they write something the way they do--you'll see that they have a confessional tone to them, but not really. They're folky but not weird, except in the accompaniment. There's a tinge of sadness to them, such as "Peach, Plum, Pear" and "Sadie." At times, they remind me of something straight out of 1870, especially "'En Gallop'" and "Inflammatory Writ" and "Bridges and Balloons." If this record moves you--and I'm sure it will--you'll find yourself singing these songs that really escape explanation--especially "The Book of Right-On" and "Peach, Plum, Pear." I know I have. Again, though, whether I gave you 100 words or 1000 words about the album's lyrical content, I still wouldn't properly capture how brilliant they are.

The Milk-Eyed Mender is one of the weirdest and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful records I've heard in quite a while. Another score for Drag City, this. I think I'm go now and sit over here and listen to this record again---just don't expect me to be able to verbalze how brilliant it is. I'm just left stupid and speechless and smiling in the face of the overwhelming beauty of The Milk-Eyed Mender.

I think that's what she was going for.

--Joseph Kyle

Label Website:
Artist Website: