I’ll admit that music is probably the medium of art I know least about. Despite having played some sort of instrument on and off for most of my life, I am just not as music savvy as I would like to be. Music is very meaningful to me, and I spend my day listening to an insane hodgepodge of playlists, but I don’t nerd out about it with as much glee and detailed precision as much as I do over literature, games or films. That is, except for Joanna Newsom. It probably comes as no surprise it’s partially because Newsom’s albums aren’t just a collection of songs, but a journey, a narrative in their own right, from the first track to the last.
The best way I can find to describe Newsom is a indie-folk epicist. She’s the closest thing we’ll have to a bard in the 21st century, and she both performs and writes in the tradition of music storytelling, sometimes following the myth of a specific figure, sometimes exploring a broader emotion or experience through a created character. When she pairs her twangy, uneven voice with her melodic harp, the raw, joyful and haunting effect only enhances the intricate stories Newsom writes into her music. She could be either just a musician, a singer or a poet, and she would already be amazing. But instead, she combines all three of her talents to create truly incredible music.
To give an example, the first time I listened to the title track off of her 2010 album, “Have One On Me,” which follows the downfall of dancer Lola Montez, the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, I was blown away by Newsom’s ability to weave a story worthy of a novel into an 11-minute song. In the climax of the song, which is honestly film-worthy, Lola is hidden away on the train with her lover, racing through the night, drunk and slipping into a frantic sleep while the realization dawns upon her that she has been expendable this whole time. To be frank, I could cite some lyrics, but the written word doesn’t do them full justice. Just go listen.
In October of 2015, Newsom released her first album is five years, “Divers.” In this album, Newsom’s character moves through several meditations of death and impermanence in the face of love, her anxiety mounting as she moves through bustling but crumbling human creations in songs such as “Sapokanikan” and “Leaving the City.” The title track of the album, about three quarters through, describes the agony of waiting, through the metaphor of the women who wait for their fishermen husbands to surface. Newsom’s character rejects the notion that men use women as a point of return, a light at the end of the tunnel, not taking into account that she too, is alive and not an anonymous signal of life and love.
Last October I was lucky enough to see Newsom live in Boston. I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my time, but never had I had an experience so transcendental as this. She wasn’t just playing songs off a set; Newsom created an intentional narrative experience for everyone in the audience that day.