Thursday, August 20, 2020

Beautiful Music: Joanna Newsom et al

Summary: Sometimes the most useful and truthful thing you can say is "look at these images, because they far exceed the average." Because you haven't finished formulating a thought yet, I suppose. This is one of those times, but for music.

Joanna Newsom

Monkey & Bear

Fascinating. A good place to start.

The following two songs, Emily and Only Skin, are the most beautiful songs I know. From the same artist, from the same album. I've been trying hard to crack these and edge in something else, but I haven't been able to. I think they're heartbreaking. They make me wonder what magical talent we've missed throughout human history through lack of the ability to record it. I have no doubt that the ancients had experiences of meaning via music that could match ours; there have probably been many Joanna Newsoms throughout history.

Ys was produced in tandem with Newsom by Van Dyke Parks, who did the orchestral arrangements. In his younger days he arranged the Jungle Book.


Only Skin

Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie

In California

Baby Birch

I didn't include anything from The Milk-Eyed Mender but it's not to be missed either.

FYI she's married to Andy Samberg.

Et Al

While we're on the subject here are a few songs that I think are beautiful by other artists. Trying to keep the list tight.

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning, Live from Austin, TX" - Richard Thompson
This is the best version and I can't find it on YouTube for some reason. Accept no substitutes.

"Ring Them Bells" - Sufjan Stevens

"Metal Heart" - Cat Power

"Down There By the Train" - Tom Waits

"Fall Apart" - Death in June


  1. I've not heard Joanna before now. Thanks very much for introducing me to her music. The swirling polyrhythms of the strings are interesting, but I feel she's at her most emotionally powerful when the music unifies, simplifies. The lyrics themselves are quite powerful, but that isn't where the power stems from.
    Whether it be atavistic need to dance around a great fire, clothed in nothing but blood and the pelts of some great predator with a blunt instrument in one hand, or the joy and damage of human connection and withdrawal, the perfect bliss a day with a loved one can be and the pain of losing that perfection, the true power of music is the expression of the otherwise ineffable. There's a vulnerability and longing in these songs, Emily especially, that is quite devastating.
    I'm reminded of seeing Rene Fleming perform O mio babbino caro several years back. I don't dislike opera, and when it is good, it is stupendously good, but if I am being honest, it is very rarely my first choice. I bought the tickets and went to this performance for the sake of my spouse. I wound up being very grateful that she enjoys classical music and opera as much as she does. Towards the end of the concert, Ms. Fleming was brought on as a guest and performed this aria. About ten second in, I was transfixed, absolutely transfixed. Thirty seconds in, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. The sheer longing in her voice penetrated right to my core.
    You can find her performing the aria on yt, and other divas perform it as well. It never quite measures up for me, but it's still worth listening to. In general, it is an amazing piece of music. A word of caution - compared to Joanna's work, the lyrics themselves might be disappointing in how straightforward they are. They amount to "Daddy, I love this man so much that if you don't help me marry him I will kill myself." But the sonics fill in all the spaces the words do not in a way that is much more complete than the lyrics could ever be.
    You used the word heartbreaking to describe the kind of beauty to be found in Joanna’s music, and I agree. I wonder: Why this kind of beauty is heartbreaking?

    1. You talking about the way the aria pierced you, I’m like yep, that’s right.
      It breaks your heart into openness, breaks down your guard. You can’t resist except by totally deadening or distracting yourself while listening to it, and even then by deadening yourself you may make yourself more vulnerable to the music’s mercy.
      Good thought in the section starting with “whether it be”
      Introducing her music to you is my great pleasure. Congratulations on discovering it; this is the least viewed post on this blog


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