February 7, 2010

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom

Until very recently, listening to Joanna Newsom made me uncomfortable. I found her weird, unnerving. In the past couple weeks, due to her upcoming three-disc album, Have One on Me, and sold-out Town Hall performance in March, there has been a surge of hype surrounding Newsom. It got hard to keep her on mute; a second listen was in order.

Upon reconsideration, I remain unnerved. But this time I’m floored, and I’ve listened to the 11 songs I have of hers on repeat for the past three hours.

There’s something utterly unleashed about Joanna. I can’t decide if her lyrics are nonsensical or brilliant (“I have read the right books/To interpret your looks/You were knocking me down/With the palm of your eye”), and the wandering rhythms of the songs are often completely erratic. She quickly flips from cooing like a girl playing with her dolls to a soulful, world-weary songstress. The comparison to Bjork is inevitable.

In the world of 2010 alternative music, Joanna strikes a unique chord. Her weapon of choice, the harp (of which she is a master), is not a common instrument in contemporary music. But her approach is also rare; she is unafraid, unrestricted, unorthodox. She ignores conventional sounds and song structures and just runs. This is why her music can at first be discomfiting. But, without question, this is also the reason for her success, her rapture.