The first notes of Joanna Newsom's fourth record are a throwback to early days.
There's a 'The Milk-Eyed Mender' tone to her voice: a squeak, a wobble, cutting through a haunting forest scape introducing harp and piano. It's a nostalgia that soon makes way for the richness of 2010's 'Have One On Me' on first track Anecdotes, with its baroque accompaniments of oboes and clarinets and flutes. The strings and wind build into a theatrical, operatic, wonder that rumbles inside your head, merging with subtle synths. Yes, Newsom now uses synths! It's a decade of Newsom right here in the first four minutes of her new record – her first in five years. Five long years.
'Anecdotes' is an incredible opening to an infectious album, unmistakably Newsom – the sound that no one else comes close to, like Tchaikovsky meets Genesis meets Kate Bush. It's already labelled her most accessible to date - one disc of songs with most at around five minutes long - but it's still as psychedelic as ever. Newsom manages to compact a whole lifetime – a whole history - of stories and sounds and genres. If anything, it makes you want to hear more. You can't lose yourself in a 20 minute mini-opera here like on 'Ys' or the two hour dedication of 'Have One On Me'. You have to accept that this is your lot and savour every second.
And every second is worth it. 'Goose Eggs' is up there with one of Newsom's most beautiful moments. It has a vintage soul feel to it, as warm as a classic Dolly Parton song and with lyrics that sum up the excitement and risk of love better than Clark Gable ever could. Newsom has talked about how lost love inspired her previous albums, but now she writes about her fear of losing love – that incredible feeling of needing someone so much it hurts, but the overwhelming terror that it could be taken away too.
Repetition in melody is used throughout 'Divers'. She's telling stories and there's a wonderful rhythm to her lyrics, like Shakespeare. Instead, the colour and variety come from the arrangements around her, bringing together slide guitar, wind, horns, strings, harpsichord, Rhodes, melodeons, xylophones and those synths. It's no surprise that the unbelievable talents of Nico Muhly and Ryan Francesconi appear, once again blurring the lines between classical, pop, folk and prog. Along with other collaborators, including amazing percussionist Neal Morgan and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, they create a cacophony of sound, a narrative in themselves, but there's never a feeling of elements competing against each other. The production is perfection.
Kate Bush and even Bowie flow through 'You Will Not Take My Heart Alive', while songs like 'Leaving The City' evoke a 70s soulfulness, a spirit of Carpenters or Carole King or even Steely Dan. In fact, as an influence, Kate Bush shines throughout this record, from the tone of Newsom's banshee like high notes to the way she makes way for dream-like sequences. It's a truly incredible album, a special album and a rare album. Give in to it because, before you're ready to let it go, it's gone.
Words: Gemma Hampson
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