Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender

Joanna Newsom's debut record turns 10.

Additional Info

8.1

ALBUM: The Milk-Eyed Mender

ARTIST: Joanna Newsom

2004

Alternative

Not many could have anticipated the influence that the debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, of Joanna Newsom would bring to the music industry. On the anniversary of the release that graced the market’s presence ten years ago today, the subtle brilliance should be appreciated of this indie classic. Not topping any charts, or holding a significant home in the mainstream music world, Milk-Eyed Mender is a hidden gem that celebrates the combination of modern sounds with a southern-rural-folk feel- a type of modern folk. From her absolute genius in lyrical brilliance to her eye-opening irreplaceable vocals, Joanna Newsom is a pioneer of sound. Comparable to the unique sounds of Devandra Banhart and Neutral Milk Hotel, Newsom has a distinct sound and style that sets her apart from anyone. Her instrument: the harp. Her voice: an acquired experience. Her undeniable talent: her lyrics.

Learning the harp from a very young age, Newsom finds her comfortable sound not in a guitar or a piano, but in a delicate and precise mechanism. Being described as inseparable from her instrument, it is obvious from the first song of the album, if not the entire album itself, that Newsom is not only knowledgeable of her musical limb, but also inspired by it. Most songs on the album only have the background of the gracious instrument and in many ways it is the most significantly pleasurable aspect of her songs. From the energetic plucking on “Bridges and Balloons,” that conjures an imaginative atmosphere to the somber tone created on “Swansea,” Newsom knows how to be inventive without being redundant with her instrument. Each song sounds distinct, but just as flawless as the next. The harp is what also adds as well as contrasts against her southern folky sound. It’s elegance in some songs bring the album more of a classical vibe while some songs including, “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie,” advertise a folk feel. Newsom’s harp is one the divergent and spectacular qualities that aid in the artist’s luster.

The other notorious instrument that Joanna Newsom is highlighted for is her voice. It is an acquired taste to say the least. It is something that some misunderstand and some absolutely adore. The negative commentators may be thrown off by her child-like nature of vocals that make her sound squeaky and uneven. Yes, her voice does come as a shock to most who hear her at first listen. But so do Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Tom Waits. Newsom’s voice is one of her best and strongest qualities. The diversity in tones and sounds that come out of her vocal chords is a spectrum of ear bending magnificence. Her voice at times is a mixture of Carol King, Jeff Mangum, Bjork and Janis Joplin. However, regardless of these talented resemblances, Newsom’s voice creates one of the most distinctive sound in history; she is completely original. Her ability to combine a velvety feel and southern, urban, folkiness is intriguing. “Peach, Plum, Pear,” “The Sprout and Bean,” and “Swansea,” frame Newsom’s groundbreaking chops the best. Nonetheless, if one does not find comfort is her music styling, no one can refute Newsom’s utter talent with her language.

The album’s content ranges from the termination of a relationship to the struggles of being pregnant with inspired words and thoughts. Her vernacular and style of lyricism is like its own separate kind of poetry. Most songs contain a clear rhyme scheme that does not feel trite or forced. She handles each line as if her last breathe; she handles each song as if she has nothing left to lose. One can tell that Newsom is a true artist because she is not holding back in any regard, feeling neither ashamed nor conflicted about what she is articulating in her music. Newsom is a storyteller in many ways, especially on tracks, “Peach, Plum, Pear,” and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie,” where she speaks of relationship dramas. Nothing feels cliché or insincere with lines like, “I do as I please/ now I’m on my knees/ your skin is something I stir into my tea.” Everything is thought out to Newsom’s artistic and romantic standards.

Milk-Eyed Mender is a real musical treasure that holds beautiful and breathtaking content and unique sound that has paved the way for many artists today. It holds a few lapses with spine tingling noise inflections and out of place tracks such as “Three Little Babes,” but it prevails with its head held high in its delicate manner. It is an underrated enigma that should be discovered over and over for years to come.

“I do as I please/ now I’m on my knees/ your skin is something I stir into my tea”

1. Bridges and Balloons
Newsom’s opening track introduces one to her magical mind that’s filled with blue lustrous seas and castles associated with the most romantic fairytales. She uses her greatest strength, her mastery of the harp, to add a sense of romanticism and delicacy. It is undeniably a gorgeous track that harbors itself on simplicity. One cannot help but think of nostalgic childhood fantasies and a forest filled with sunshine. This may be due to the playful melody, but also Newsom’s vocals. With peculiar inflections and childlike intonations, Newsom finds the right balance between her style and moderation in order not to overdo it. Great imagery is also captivated within this beginning track. Newsom not only sings as if she is telling a story, yet paints a picture. “We sailed away on a winter’s day/ with fate as malleable as clay,” hold breathtaking imagery and emotion intertwined to create a poetic experience. She speaks of her lover along with an allusion to the castle in the fantastical world of Narnia of the C.S. Lewis books. She’s a dreamer and explorer letting her lyrics and hypnotic nostalgia guide one into a world of wonder. 9.0
2. Sprout and the Bean
The beauty of Newsom’s delicate melodies continues with this track. The song conjures a type of magical waltz feel, but the tone is more somber than the previous track. It’s simple and carries a sense of sadness. Newsom’s voice is cautious and subtle. The harmonies that she does on the chorus are breathtaking and one of the best aspects of the song. Discussing what seem to be the matters of life versus the process of growth towards life, “The difference between the sprout and the bean/ is a golden ring, it is a twisted string.” And references to “breaking of bread,” as if applicable to religious purposes. Although Newsom’s lyrics, almost like Shakespeare’s, spiral and twist in riddles and metaphors that do not necessarily add up to a literal answer, they are cause intrigue, resulting in extreme infatuation. The lyrics feel as though there are multiple references to life and death with lines like, “I am big boned and fey in the dust of the day/ in the dirt of the day,” along with “I slept as though dead/ dreaming seamless dreams of lead.” Referencing monarchy figures and “white coats” might allude to the division of authority and freedom since we all result in death. Newsom continues with elegance and divine creativity resulting in a lovely song.8.5
3. The Book of Right-on
Starting off to a slower beginning, the acoustic rhythm that Newsom created is a nice transition from the first couple songs. The juxtaposition of the stern bass line and her riffing is well constructed with great cohesion. This song holds some jazz tones, especially in Newsom’s vocals. An interesting thing to make the harp sound jazzy and soulful- a creative achievement. This track highlights Newsom’s various tones within her vocal range- from velvety to edgy.7.0
4. Sadie
The story of the track can literally be attributed to Newsom’s dog, Sadie, who passed away. But abstractly, the song talks of death, morality, and immortality. It is beautifully written with lines such as, "Bury this bone to gnaw on it later/ Gnawing on the telephone/ Until/ then, we pray and suspend/The notion that these lives do never end,” that through the natural and religious imagery. That life is temporary and most of us forget that is a simple message, but nevertheless a necessary one. Newsom’s ability to craft a song utilizing her dog a real analogy is lovely, it’s accessible and makes the sincerity of the track come to life. The tone of the song holds more of a folky feel with Newsom’s childlike vocals put on full volume. Newsom’s vocals may be an acquired taste on this track, but the subject should not be.7.0
5. Inflammatory Writ
Newsom abandons her harp for a bouncy piano sound. Her vocals are not accentuated in the most flattering way resulting in what sounds like a musical dialogue with a southern accent. It is not the most attractive song on the album, but it does have its aspects worth acknowledging. It discusses the struggle of writing inspiring things, writing things wells, and writing things worth writing in the first place. It seems more like a comedic commentary that should be appreciated for the content. However, production and content do not coincide in peace on this track, making it seem a little out of place.6.0
6. The Side of the Blue
The subdued manner of Newsom’s voice is heartwarming and inviting the curious opening lyrics, “Svetlana sucks lemons across from me/ and I am progressing abominably/ and I don’t know my own way to the sea.” Newsom is speaking in metaphors again, telling a story. She sings of three characters with purposeless lives and mentions the existentialism briefly with the line, “see him fashion a cap from a page of Camus.” Mentioning of moments accumulating as people go about their day doing what they normally do and what they only know how to do. Newsom speaks of life along with its purpose, not implementing her opinion of what humanities purpose may be, but implying that there may be one. She implies that we may not notice our purpose that one can only do what he or she knows in this physical life. Her vocals are whispery and hollow that mix well with the country feel stimulated by the pedal steel guitar that wails in the background. The track is simple, not conveying any real emotion, not happy nor sad, it just is, letting the listener come up with his or her own natural emotion inspired from it. It is quite admirable.8.5
7. ‘En Gallop’
“Never get so attached to a poem/ you forget truth that lacks lyricism,” is an amazing line that highlights the genius of the song. The struggle of what we want, the temptation of desire, and what is truly necessary for us. This track differentiates itself from the other with the oriental sound.7.5
8. Cassiopeia
A mystifying song with the plucking of the harp and distinct annunciation that Newsom delivers. The harp starts to expand as the song progresses and Newsom’s voice becomes more passionate. The song sings of dreams and sleep. It is romantic. Newsom sings of various images from restless sleep, “Feel the mattress tense beneath me/like the muscle of nonsleepy;/ Feathers flexing will defeat me, / and it vexes me completely,” with vivid dreams, “And in store are dreams so daring/ that the night can't stop from staring. / I'll swim sweetly as a herring/ through the ether, not despairing,” and the description of the sky with the constellation, Cassiopeia. The intricacies of the harp plucking toward the end of the song are stunning and transitions the song into a Newsom’s own dream world.8.0
9. Peach, Plum, Pear
Straying from the harp sound, Newsom has her most exciting and inventive track of the album with a medieval feel. The old-fashioned 15th century piano plays against Newsom’s individual and unique vocal tones, creating the perfect combination of sound. The lyrics tell a story of a girl who falls for a man that she did not expect to who has a bad reputation with women. She surprised by his intrigue, but it seems that she falls in love with but their relationship does not last, “Now it’s done/ watch it go/ you’ve changed some/ water runs from snow.” The changing form of water could signify the altering of the seasons, which could refer to the bigger idea of the changing of relations, and transitions that life entail. The story is not unheard- relationships don’t always work out- however; the way Newsom informs of us her story exemplifies her beautiful knowledge she has over the art of language. The track ends with the lines, "peach, plum pear/ peach plum…” where the absence of the last “pear,” symbolizes the split of the relationship. There is no last “pear,” or really there is not last pair. Her use of colors is also brilliant as the relationship starts so gloriously “golden went grey.” Newsom is an intelligent writer, whose lyrical talent should be recognized. One last genius aspect of the song is the voice manipulations that Newsom uses on her voice in order to create an underwater effect. It is the perfect embellishment that adds just the right amount of twinkle to the track. This is the essential track to listen to on the album with all its tragic glory.9.5
10. Swansea
Another breathtaking song that soothes and calms. The harp is magnificent as Newsom’s voice dances beautifully along its side. The harp explodes mid song with a gorgeously frantic plucking section. Newsom’s voice cracks and withers along with the elegant instrument until harmony is reached again. Her inflections are powerful. The last minute of the song that is pure plucking is brilliant.8.0
11. Three Little Babes
Not a highlight of the album. A pure folk song that highlights different tones of Newsom’s voice. The passion in her voice is admirable, but it is not the most accomplished song of the album. The simplicity of the piano does not do enough for the track. The echo-like feel of their voices is interesting, but feels out of place. This track seems to be misplaced and only weighs the album down as Newsom sounds like she is vomiting lyrics.6.5
12. Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie
It is a heartbreaking track about the death of a relationship but it is approached with delicacy and sincerity. Lyrical beauty devours this track with breathtaking lines that break the heart or bring tears to the eyes. Newsom’s voice is confident but somber. She sings with her pain-ridden heart. It sounds like an acoustic guitar is used on this track, but it could be a new approach Newsom is trying on the harp. It’s a pretty and naked rhythm that lets the content take the spotlight. “I chew my lip, and I scratch my nose/ feels so good to be a rose,” Newsom sings with reference to anxious mechanisms and new familiarity with being something beautiful that cannot be embraced. She “cannot let go,” but she wants to. She holds him up to high standard, as he is “starry,” something so far out of reach. Lines like, “I do as I please/ now I’m on my knees/ your skin is something I stir into my tea,” “and some bellies ache with bumblebees (and they sting so terribly),” are some of the most breathtaking lines that have been written. This song is truly beautiful as it finds the purity and grace in struggle and heartache. A wonderful closing to Milk-Eyed Mender.10.0
Written by Margaret Farrell
Margaret Farrell is a writer from outside Chicago. She is currently a student at New York University, studying journalism and creative writing.



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