I have a friend – well, a work colleague – who calls Joanna Newsom "that woman with the irritating, squeaky voice". And that, unfortunately, seemed to be the consensus the general public reached after the release of the harpist's first album, The Milk Eyed Mender. Like Dylan, or even Ella Fitzgerald, some people can't seem to get past the voice, filled with flourishes and delivered with a childlike diction. The reaction is all the more odd, considering the unnatural vocal gymnastics people seem willing to forgive – even encourage – in their pop acts; think the diva antics of Aguilera, Carey and Co., seemingly able to string single syllables over a whole octave.
At its root, the subtext of the argument is the battle between "art" and "populism". The fact that Newsom doesn't craft pop tunes to soundtrack late night strip-clubs or produce pompous power ballads marks her out as an "artist" and so, by implication, necessarily "difficult", "kooky" and "weird". As if these were bad things. Newsom's most obvious recent cultural reference point is Kate Bush, a woman somehow capable of cultivating popularity, as she walks a tightrope between the opposing sides. Deconstruct the likes of 'Wuthering Heights' and you'll find high art concepts, skillfully hidden under a sheen of pop froth.
That quirky voice is still gloriously in evidence on Ys, but Joanna has moved towards a more acceptable middle-ground. Tempered somewhat, it's a little less rough around the edges and becomes the voice hinted at on the softer, more delicate moments of The Milk Eyed Mender. There's no doubt Ys is aided by bigger production values and a much greater sense of ambition. Consisting of only five songs – the shortest of which is a mere seven minutes; the longest, a sixteen minute epic – Newsom has seemingly adopted Brian Wilson's pocket symphony ethos to produce an alt-folk Smile. Those nods towards Smile are apt, and not just for the involvement of Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks in the orchestral arrangements, because each track on Ys is full of returning tropes and themes, the songs becoming more like classical suites.
But, lest you think that Newsom is any less barking than you previously thought, there's the near ten minutes of "Monkey And Bear". Starting out sounding like an out-take from a classic Disney movie circa Sleeping Beauty, it's a slightly disturbing story about the love between a, yes, monkey and a bear that takes on a kind of Peter And The Wolf orchestrated quality. It's easily the weirdest track on Ys, and yet, it most obviously flags Newsom's talent for involving storytelling and lyrical inventiveness. I mean, where else can you find spelunking bears in pop music?
Ys represents a vast leap forward for Joanna Newsom, no longer merely the wonky voiced harpist of public perception, she's blossomed into a unique and (hopefully) much-valued talent. It's unlikely, in today's quick-fix iPod and MTV2 generation, that there's much room for an album that contains no possible singles, concerns itself with such abstract and off-kilter subject matter as comets and monkey-bear love, and requires careful attention to unlock its hidden layers of beauty. Ys may not be clasped to the public's collective bosom, but, like all the Dylans and Fitzgeralds before her, Newsom deserves to be seen as much more than just "art".