ALBUM: The Milk-Eyed Mender
ARTIST: Joanna Newsom
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”