It’s only been 13 years since Joanna Newsom’s debut LP The Milk-Eyed Mender but she is already firmly established as one of the preeminent songwriters working today. The warning signs are all there—an immediately recognizable and totally inimitable style, the respect her contemporaries, an uncompromising vision that eschews traditional pop, and enough commercial success to allow her to follow her calling on her own terms.
Most of all, Newsom makes music that is both challenging enough to reward continuous study and beautiful enough to impress on the first listen. Following The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom returned with a dramatic, gauntlet-tossing vision with Ys. She then self-produced yet another major work—her best so far—with the triple LP Have One on Me, a collection that confirmed unique songwriting. The continued craft on 2015’s Divers shows an instrumentalist, composer and lyricist of profound artistry.
Newsom’s best songs may well still be in front of her. Still, here are 10 of the most technically accomplished and otherworldly tracks she’s released thus far.
This is a particularly cutting song from album full of them, her classic debut LP. “I have read the right book / to interpret your look. / You were knocking me down / with the palm of your eye,” she sings, as if intimated. But while the lyrics paint someone who is “blue and unwell,” her bracing delivery makes it clear she doesn’t stay flustered for long, if at all. When the clustered, multi-tracked vocals come in they sound less like a choir than a gang there to back her up; or, rather, she’s there to back herself up.
This standout track from Divers shows off Newsom’s tremendous ability to weave the mythical with the personal, all while maintaining a formally precise lyrical scheme. The instrumentation flows easily between keys and bells with an exuberant, bright bounce. Drums slip in and out, of the mix, too, more a featured texture than a beat. Yet, the driving force is Newsom’s percussive lyrics. The combination is deeply literary and allusive.
One of Ys’ most intriguing and rewarding pieces is this twisting, richly detailed narrative. Van Dyke Parks’ production, complementing Newsom’s own jaunty harp composition, is like a film soundtrack—shading the lyrical content with various moods that range from excitement to confusion to mourning in conjunction with the story. The song takes on a mythical cast, but if Newsom is delivering a parable, she leaves it to the listener to determine the moral of the story.
A hint (and sometimes a lot more than a hint) of a Renaissance aesthetic runs through much of Newsom’s work, and that theme is in full flower here. But this track from Divers is most notable for the crazy creative vocal phrasings she brings on the tune’s head-spinning middle section.
The traditional country feeling in the melody of “Sadie”’s memorable (if unrepeated) chorus plays against the stirring, unclassifiable vocal performances of the verses. “All day long we talk about mercy / Lead me to water, Lord, I sure am thirsty,” Newsom sings. She continues, reflecting on that tension ,“This is an old song, these are old blues / and this is not my tune but it’s mine to use.” The song’s title refers to a faithful childhood dog. By layering the portrait of her beloved pet into a broader meditation on death, regeneration and song, “Sadie” becomes one of the strongest moments of her catalog, suggesting that the well she’s drinking from is very deep, indeed.
Newsom can go long with an idea, sometimes delivering opuses that stretch past the 15-minute mark and contain numerous movements. But, playing against that type, she delivers one of the best tunes on her masterpiece Have One on Me with this brief and clear-eyed single. Every syllable in the four brief verses is perfectly in place, complemented by a deep bardic melody that touches the heart.
The expansive lyrical content and layered allusions of Ys can be pretty hard to follow. Although “Sawdust & Diamonds” is just as dense as the rest of the tracks on the record, the song has a uniquely visual quality thanks to its lyrics. And, like in “Monkey & Bear,” there is a cinematic excitement to the tune, a sense of adventure and mystery as the imagery plays on the inner eye. Newsom challenges listeners to keep pace, but it’s pure joy to follow poetry this cunning and clear.
This heartbreaking and meticulous track that begins as an address to an unborn child expands into a reflection on loss and recovery. In this sense, it is part of a lineage with her early classic “Sadie.” The final third of the tune takes a left turn with a palpitating drum arrangement and a dreamlike, pastoral counter-narrative that hints at healing, but keeps strict meanings at bay. The absence of a clear resolution makes this one of the most beautiful and haunting tracks she’s delivered so far.
The Milk-Eyed Mender is in turns funny, tender, peculiar, and clever. But on this magnificent ballad, Newsom becomes deadly serious. There’s a lot of novel vocabulary on this record, but “This Side of the Blue” takes that tendency to new heights, brilliantly reflecting on words themselves: “The signifieds butt heads with the signifiers,” she sings, “and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words / while across the sky sheet the impossible birds / in their steady, illiterate movement homeward.” The external world—the signified—is so much grander than our ability to capture it in poetry or ideas. Yet, here’s her voice, a strange bird in its own right, bringing us a vision of reality we can damn near touch, if surely feel.
This isn’t the most epic, most virtuosic or most groundbreaking Newsom song, but it’s her best so far because it taps an elemental pop feeling—an aching sound with the power to deliver both chills and joy. Like much of her best work, this tune begins with one clear idea—having a conversation with a lover while driving to play a show—but leaps from there into mirrored depths that only she could conjure. “And I did not mean to shout, just drive / just get us out of here dead or alive,” she sings, pinning the setting vividly in a car’s interior. Later, after slowing down the song into a graceful second movement, she recalls the scene again: “And I do hate to fold / right here at the top of my game / when I’ve been trying with my whole heart and soul / to stay right here in the right lane.” Amid the overflow of great songs on Have One On Me, this track stands out from the first listen and becomes more gorgeous over time.