Joanna Newsom is the musical equivalent of a Disneyland employee or a server at a goofy theme restaurant. Her out-there shtick — plucking delicate arpeggios on a full-size harp while warbling naturalist verse in a precocious-toddler voice — is the kind of thing that only works if she commits herself to it wholeheartedly. If she half-assed it for even a minute, she would not only look like a fraud, but end up making you feel like a chump for caring. As anyone who has seen Devendra Banhart on an off night can tell you, this is the predicament of Newsom’s so-called freak-folk cohort: When these oft-bearded weirdos don’t connect, they can come across as smug and superior, precisely the earthly qualities that their neo-hippie psychedelia is intended to act as a salve for.
On Ys, the follow-up to 2004’s celebrated debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom sounds neither smug nor superior (nor, for that matter, all that earthly). Ambitious and satisfying, Ys is divided into five lengthy selections, each lasting somewhere between seven and 17 minutes. But the disc really functions as one long suite, a spellbinding tone poem that establishes an atmosphere of magical-realist believability. Like a superdevoted bar wench at Medieval Times, Newsom plays her part with total, unblinking conviction, luxuriating in the lovely imperfections of her voice and imbuing descriptions of talking animals with literary gravitas.
Yet the effect isn’t stifling; it’s transporting. Newsom’s accomplishment on The Milk-Eyed Mender was demonstrating that the harp had a middle-ground vocabulary between whimsy and refinement. On Ys, accompanied by lavish orchestral arrangements from Van Dyke Parks (the art-pop eccentric who helped Brian Wilson conceive Smile), Newsom takes her music to emotional extremes. In “Monkey & Bear,” she gives an unsettling wisp of minor-key melancholy to her illustration of how a “heartless hay-monger” treats his performing bear roughly. “Emily” swells with strings as an amazed Newsom discovers that a “meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.” Twisting her voice into a kind of heavy-metal yowl on “Sawdust & Diamonds,” she describes being “doubled over with the hunger of lions.”
Throughout the album, Newsom’s language is more colorful than on Mender; at its best, it works as music even on the page: “There is a rusty light on the pines tonight,” she sings on “Emily.” “Sun pouring wine, Lord, or marrow down into the bones of the birches.” That kind of unembarrassed, flowery expression can be risky in a world of casually cynical cool, yet it’s a risk Newsom takes on confidently. She doesn’t just rescue the freak-folk scene from hollow caricature, she bestows it with real human depth.