In an interview, following the release of Ys, Newsom said that the ending of “Monkey & Bear,” a lengthy song that takes up half of the second side of the two-record vinyl version, is “supposed to be scary and strange and disorienting and it’s not supposed to be clear what’s happening.”
Such an artistic statement tends to be taken as a license for stream-of-consciousness, or spontaneous, creation. But in the case of Ys (pronounced “ees”), its indecipherability is the result of a prolonged time spent composing and recording the songs. Newsom calculated it took her five months to compose the songs, all of which run over seven minutes. She recorded her vocal and harp parts with Steve Albini, known for his precise approach, who got down every emotional nuance of her voice, every glimmer of the strings under her touch. Afterwards, Van Dyke Parks sent her his inventive orchestral arrangements, Newsom giving him notes, and Parks revising the arrangements, to which Newsom gave him more notes for the next revision. The process took half a year, including Newsom working with Parks for a few weeks in LA, where he conducted the orchestral overdubs.
Which is to say that the nearly-reckless breaking of cliches is intended from the start. To ask what these songs are about; well, it would do about as much good to ask what epic poems are about. And that’s the level of artistic complexity we’re really talking about here. Even the comparison with epic poetry sort of falls short, because listening to the songs, while reading the voluminous lyric booklet, is a different experience than just listening to the songs. The listening experience also factored into the making of these songs: Parks noticed how Newsom sped up and slowed down her singing to fit the lyrics, and wanted the arrangements to reflect her unique pacing.
It actually is more productive to focus on how history/stories can be leveraged by critically-aware artists such as Newsom. What happens, for example, when a creation allegory about a city on an island off of the coast of Brittany, the name of which gives the album its title, is interpreted outside of/beyond Christian myth? You get, according to Newsom, more interesting narratives about the dynamics of life, its uncontrollability and unpredictability conveyed in natural imagery. The record is full of images of water and fire that do feel disorienting – as we often tend not to be used to a performer removing the Christian guardrails/signposts that have historically aided us in dealing emotionally with everything we find difficult to express.
A lack of traditional meaning, as dictated by Western-European cultural dogma, is the absence at the center of Ys. In its place is a concerted exploration of what can be done with this freedom: dream in letters (which catalyzed the search for the album title), even, be amazed at the coincidences that emerge (Newsom found, she says, in a book about the city of Ys, the same line that she’d already written for a song on the record).
If anything, Ys pokes fun at our nostalgia for a cosmology that is easy to map in language – and would warn us, of course, about taking anything Newsom says too literally. In a section, repeated twice in the unwinding of the playful loops of the opening song “Emily,” she tosses in a deliberate anachronism twice: “And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee . . . And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.”
Newsom has some very choice words for anyone who’d take her to task for this editorial decision: ”I don’t go out of my way to use ‘antique’ or archaic words, in fact I find it really distasteful when I hear music where I feel like that’s intentionally done, where someone could have said something a different way, and they said it that way specifically because they wanted to make a period piece.”
If “Emily” were anything akin to a period piece, it would be unlikely indeed to hear the soaring melodic lines settle into a meditative pattern evocative of the luminous late-60s Beach Boys pieces composed by Brian Wilson in his prime (Parks collaborated with Wilson on the infamous Smile project in the late 60s, which remained officially incomplete until 2011, with Parks by then out of the picture).
The premise of “Monkey & Bear” is similar to “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear” (1972) by Randy Newman, a singer-songwriter whom Newsom openly admires. Rather than following his allegory about performing, however, she makes it into a twisted tale about conditional love, control, and escape. Parks’s orchestral parts dance a shadow pantomime around the animal protagonists – freed from a farm, which is all they’ve ever known, they go on a series of adventures. Monkey tells Bear he’ll love her as long as she performs for their livelihood, until her getting fed up with the arrangement leads to the song’s ambiguous ending.
Just when you’ve started to wrap your head around “Emily” and “Monkey & Bear,” the orchestra drops out altogether in “Sawdust & Diamonds,” and Newsom’s elastic voice and stunningly intricate harp playing are presented in an unadorned way. It’s an appropriate setting for an intervention into the anxieties stoked by our social performances: the song opens and closes with a waiting figure that portends the waves of desire crashing – and undoing us.
The last, and shortest, song “Cosmia” is, I suppose, a surreal staging of a communal feast with persistently darker overtones. The middle break, comprised of a colossus of time-shifting riffs, plays off of whatever art-rock piece by Yes, or Genesis, or – to head in a more deconstructive direction – Henry Cow that you have in mind.
While Newsom seems nonchalant about anyone playing the add-up-the-influences game, she’s designed Ys to encourage us to move beyond such rote interpretive strategies. What does add up is that the songs push back against the control of meaning, whether public or private. Heard now, when corporate entertainment media has given anyone the license to be a critic – to flaunt what comic/provocateur Gregg Turkington mockingly calls “expertise” – we should be elated at how Ys kicks over the traces.