Since Joanna Newsom released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in the spring of 2004, she has become a highly divisive figure in popular music. Just as Newsom began to find a following of devoted fans appreciative of her unique artistic contributions, she simultaneously amassed a legion of detractors eager to dismiss her because of what they perceived as indulgent eccentricities. One bright Sunday morning in the fall of 2004, a couple of friends played The Milk-Eyed Mender for me for the first time over brunch at their apartment. The allure and warmth of these songs have merged with the rest of my memories of that pleasant autumn morning. This introduction to Joanna Newsom’s music sheltered me from the debate over her significance in contemporary music and allowed me to behold the lyrical depth, musical complexity, and singular appeal of this extraordinary album.
The idea that anyone has established a critically acclaimed career in modern indie rock as a highly literate, classically trained harpist still blows my mind and I’ve been watching her career for over a decade. One thing most of Newsom’s critics miss is her remarkable sense of humor, which runs through her entire catalog and figures prominently in the best songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender. “Bridges and Balloons” opens Newsom’s debut album with two lines on the harp gently fading in for twenty seconds before she begins to share a highly detailed account of an incredible journey. Upon closing the narrative, Newsom allows the two lines of the harp to dance together hypnotically for over a minute before the songs fades out like it faded in. A couple songs later, “The Book of Right-on” exhibits Newsom’s flair for absurd humor against a showcase of her musical prowess while she interlaces a prominent bassline with highly rhythmic high end figures on the harp. The first time I heard the lyric, “I killed my dinner with karate,” I was convinced that I’d misheard it, but I came to better understand the scope of her humor. Oddly enough, The Roots sampled this song’s chorus and bassline to create the surprisingly successful throwback jam, “Right On” on their 2010 album, How I Got Over. As I became more familiar with The Milk-Eyed Mender, I liked many of the songs, but “Inflammatory Writ” was the first one I loved. Upon my first close listen, I thought I was hearing a talent show performance by a secret love child of Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Whirling by in just under three minutes and guided by the stiffly paced ramble of piano accompaniment, Newsom delivers an eviscerating satire of songwriters’ self-absorption. By mocking herself, her peers, and her role models with such zeal and style, Newsom acknowledges to her audience that she isn’t taking herself too seriously.
Since The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom has released three albums and each one has deepened her artistic vision, heightened the quality of her storytelling, and expanded her musical palette. In the fall of 2007, I saw Newsom perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in support of Ys, her ambitious breakthrough sophomore album. Just a few months ago, I attended her show at the Boulder Theater on the tour for her most recent album, Divers. Both times, Newsom highlighted her newest material, but revisited several songs from her first album. I was already familiar with these songs, but watching them unfold first hand instilled within me a sense of awe, admiration, and wonder. In fewer than fifteen years, Newsom has built an impressive, innovative, and unprecedented career in popular music and it all started with The Milk-Eyed Mender.
- John Parsell