by Kevin Czap
…we move within his borders
in the stars’ set
We could stand for a century…
— Joanna Newsom, “Emily”
An asterism is a collection of stars seen in the night sky that appear to form a pattern. The star patterns we see, like the Big Dipper, can be light years apart in reality, but their apparent proximity lets us connect the dots to create a picture in our minds. Our constellations come out of this phenomenon originally, when preceding human cultures were able to form stories from the shapes they perceived in the heavens.
This concept should sound pretty familiar to us comics nerds, as it’s the same closure that allows us make sense of the panels of a comic strip. One of the aspects of the medium that continues to fascinate me and charge me full of energy is how atomic the whole operation is. I’m talking protons and neutrons, not Kimota/Shazam. Comics are the building blocks of life — capitalizing on our human instincts to forge complex meaning out of singular information. This is the pulsing brain beat that goes through my mind all day every day. It’s why I’m able to draw so many connections between comics and other forms of culture, because to me, the purpose of comics is to draw those connections. How could I not?
“There was a silence you took to mean something”
As I believe I’ve made clear elsewhere, one of my biggest influences in comics making is music (the kind with lyrics, more often than not). This may seem odd, since comics deal in an entirely exclusionary sense than music. I will probably have occasion to talk more about the similarities in another post, I’ll say for now that the two art forms both go for the same result, but use different methods to get there. If we think of the meaning in comics as being formed from the combination words and visual imagery, narrative or lyrical songs use the combination of words and sound. In both cases, the second half adds emotion and gut feeling to the words through their use of time. But anyway, more on that for another time. What I’m talking about here specifically, and what I find to be the most influential aspect of music, is the structure of the album.
An album, at its most basic, is just a package used to sell a collection of songs (again, this concept is not foreign to comics folks… even the French have adopted the word). But then there came to be those artists who looked at this package and saw space to utilize it as a more integral part of the contents. Most of us have heard of the phrase “concept album,” I’m sure. With the concept record (or rock opera, if you will) the recording becomes a curated event, the songs all composed and arranged according to specific artistic aims (see L’s post from this past Monday). Compositions sharing signs and themes with each other within a larger composition.
I’ve been fascinated by this idea of album narratives for quite some time, having written papers in college about the recurring themes in Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous and others. When it came to write this, though, I had to go with the best. Released in 2006, Joanna Newsom’s sophomore record, Ys (pronounced like “geese” without the “g”) was an inspirational atom bomb that I’m still suffering the effects of. Newsom can be a polarizing figure, but as far as I’m concerned, this album is a god damn masterwork and I will tell you why it means so much to me.
Ys is an intricately personal work. Composed of 5 songs, averaging at 10 minutes each, the album is largely a response to three hugely significant events in the artist’s life. According to Newsom, about 97% of the record is straight autobiography. People who have heard the album might think that’s a strange statement to make, and for those who haven’t I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. The narratives in Ys may be autobiographical, but they are anything but plain boring navel-gazing. Newsom is one of the ablest poets making music, and what we end up hearing are these real-life circumstances rendered as complex fragmented metaphors, at times verging on the apocryphal.
The lines are fading in my kingdom
“Emily,” named for (and featuring on backing vocals) Newsom’s sister who, being an astrophysicist, is tied to the celestial subject matter. This song focuses on the crumbling kingdom of childhood memories, where the safety and tranquility of home is in dire jeopardy and Joanna is calling desperately for Emily’s return before all is lost. One can right away draw a connection between the content of this song and the title of the album, which refers to the myth of an ancient city off the coast of France that, like Atlantis, was erased from history and buried at the bottom of the sea. Water plays a significant role in other songs, but we can see the significance of such a magnificent place falling to ruin, and the structure of the song mimics this descent. The opening lines describe a storybook setting, yet the tone grows more urgent as the situation gets worse and worse.
Similarly, the next song, “Monkey & Bear” follows a similar downward spiral. More explicit a reference to fairy tales and fables, the music begins as if from a Walt Disney picture, and tells the story of the anthropomorphic titular characters. Again, the light-heartedness doesn’t last long — after Monkey and Bear escape the farm where they’re held captive, Monkey quickly adopts the role of oppressor, keeping Bear as an unwitting slave, similar to the comrades of Animal Farm. Eventually Ursula (for who my beautiful dog is named, and whose name is also reminiscent of the constellation that house the Big Dipper [see above]) can not wait for “someday” any longer and goes off on her own to the sea. It’s here that the metaphorical overtakes the narrative, and we are left with an image of some kind of transcendence, of a transformation taking place.
“Stardust and Diamonds” begins on the sea, where the narrator drops a bell over the side of her vessel, only to have it return to haunt her throughout the 10 minute song (“well I believe that it tolls, it tolls for me”). The song on the surface has to do with events surrounding the creation of a toy dove, really a marionette (“made with love, made with glue, and a glove, and some pliers…”), but deeper down it again deals with a kind of transformation, and also death. There are enough clues in the song that it could be at least partially about a lost child, not brought to term one way or another. Already on the record we see continuing themes of death, destruction, transformation and the transcendence of borders.
My favorite song is also the longest, over 16 minutes. “Only Skin” begins with one of Darryl’s patented “dramatic entrances,” exploding into your ears with a squeek as Joanna announces a booming in the air as warplanes drop from the sky. This song seems to touch on most if not all of the themes the album is concerned with, bringing to the forefront issues of gender and questions of the finality of death that had been swimming under the surface until now. The scope is apparently so far-reaching, that Newsom includes a completely separate song for a few minutes about a third of the way in. Borders and boundaries, remember? Panels within panels. Also of key importance to the whole work is the anecdote about the bird (which should unsurprisingly remind one of the dove). A bird flies into the narrator’s window and so she takes the body, still as a stone for a lifetime or two, up to the tree tops to protect its body from whatever might disturb it on the ground. When they finally climb all the way up, the bird seemingly comes back to life and flies off.
The album concludes with the relatively short “Cosmia,” which places all of its focus on the death motif that had been running throughout. The image of a moth is at the center of this song (Cosmia is a genus of moth), which is seemingly addressed to a friend of Newsom’s who passed away (though it could also serve as a eulogy for the loss brought up in “Sawdust and Diamonds?”). Life is compared to moths being drawn to a porch light in the darkness, only to end up with their dusty wings singed off. Newsom ends the whole affair with an invocation to her lost friend to maybe let her know if there is “true light” after life.
From an editorial standpoint, Ys is flawless. A quote I like to repeat to myself goes “perfection is not when there’s nothing left to add, it’s when there’s nothing left to take away,” and this is extremely true for this record. Yes, the songs are long, but they really can’t be any shorter. You don’t feel the length at all and every single word is crucial to the intricate lattice work that makes up the album. And this is why I’m talking about this on a comics blog.
Each song tells a more or less singular story, there’s no crossovers, continuations, what have you. In spite of this, you just can’t listen to them out of context without missing most of the point. The magic of the record, and really, the near endless complexity it contains comes out of the interrelationships Newsom has crafted throughout. This is exactly how comics should work at their best — removing any one panel deflates the work and the fully-flushed orchestra becomes a one-note joke. Any time I make work, this album and the lessons I learned from it are at the forefront of my mind.
Of course, there are more direct narrative works in music, but I’ve chosen one that has such a fragmentary construction for a couple of reasons. For one, these are the kinds of structures that really excite me, I like making the connections and figuring out the deepening meaning. I get excited when I can discover something new after experiencing an art work hundreds of times already. This is the kind of work I try to make myself.
The other reason has to do with the kinds of things I think art has the responsibility to fulfill. Basically, we live in a very complex world, this is not news to anyone. Any given moment is rife with innumerable variables that constantly push and move events forward and contribute to the kind of culture we are living in and what kind of culture we will inhabit in the future. The universe is full of patterns, both completely natural and carried through by human activity (which isn’t unnatural itself, it’s just better disguised). Our culture is kind of like a really powerful stream, it’s easy to get swept up and miss a lot of what is really going on. I think that art that challenges us and encourages us to decipher patterns actually helps us take more notice of what’s going on around us. Whether it’s socio-political or just in our own personal lives (the personal is political), if we can begin to recognize the connections around us, we have a better ability to address what may need to be changed. We are better able to communicate these patterns to others.
I think that comics as a medium is perfectly suited to this task. The grammar of comics is actually teaching us pattern recognition, with varying degrees of complexity. A lot of us who make art, we’ve surely said to ourselves before how we want to make work that is meaningful to someone else. It’s the dream of many of us to have something we’ve made change someone’s life. This is one of my biggest motivators for making art, and work like Ys confirms that it’s possible. I know that this record, as well as many comics and other forms of art, has helped me understand my life better, and it’s how we make sense out of the patterns in our lives is what helps us continue living.
A large portion of my understanding about the circumstances of Joanna Newsom creating this album comes from this excellent article by Erik Davis from Arthur Magazine.