Letters at 3AM: Who's That Girl?

Singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom is an inimitable genius

Letters at 3AM: Who's That Girl?
Illustration by Jason Stout

Men are intractably stupid about women (a condition that does not improve with age). So when a male friend raves of a female singer, one is wary of what psychology calls "projection." But when a female friend says, "You gotta listen to this gal," revelation may be at hand. A friend in her 60s insisted I hear Sahara Smith, a friend in her 20s burned me a Jolie Holland disc, a friend in her 40s sent me Eilen Jewell's CD, a friend in her 50s raved of Elizabeth Cook, and a friend in her 20s indicated, charmingly, that if I didn't listen hard to Joanna Newsom I was but a likable, aging fool, slipping daily beneath her level of consciousness.

These friends didn't disappoint. Allow me a few analogies my generation of film buffs would understand. (For everyone else, take the following two paragraphs as a can't-be-bested Netflix movie list the next time an illness incapacitates you for days.)

If Grace Kelly of Mogambo sang silkily, with the serrated savvy of Ava Gardner in Mogambo and Ava's mystery in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, that's Sahara Smith. If Mae West in I'm No Angel, Ida Lupino in High Sierra, and Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve happened to enter a faulty transporter beam, out would step Jolie Holland. If Anne Francis in Forbidden Planet were the out-of-wedlock daughter of Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama, that would be Eilen Jewell. If a drunken lab technician mixed the DNA of Tuesday Weld in I Walk the Line, Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, Gena Rowlands in Faces, and Jane Darwell's Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, that test tube would gleam of Elizabeth Cook.

Joanna Newsom? David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Candy Clark in American Graffiti, Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, Jean Harlow in Red Dust, James Cagney (and his mother) in White Heat, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein, Helen Mirren in Excalibur, Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, and Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction – Joanna Newsom could homegirl with all of them.

Smith possesses an astonishing melodic intelligence. Few alive match Holland's grasp of the American musical idiom. Jewell is saucy street-wise fun. Cook is the best kind of dangerous. Newsom is – and I don't use this word often – a genius.

Sloppy word, "genius." Put it this way: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were equally possessed of originality and genius, but Whitman changed the face of world poetry, while Dickinson remains wonderfully in her garden, inimitable. In much the same way, from Freewheelin' in 1963 through Blonde on Blonde in 1966, Bob Dylan changed the Western world's definition of "song." No songwriter since escapes his influence. Singer-songwriter Newsom, equally original, is inimitable.

Dylan and Newsom have one quality in common: a shocking voice. Not beautiful-shocking. Electric shocking. Their voices change how one listens.

Dylan, in the early and mid-Sixties, didn't sound folksy like Woody Guthrie. He sounded ugly, a wheedling, sly voice, bristling with secrets, singing magnificent imagery. You heard the images through the medium of that voice, and this made you redefine "beauty," extending its definition into a conceptual dissonance akin to the musical dissonance of Thelonious Monk.

On her first two albums, The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys, Newsom's voice is compellingly primitive, the voice of an ecstatic, wailing girl, sometimes maybe age 7, sometimes as old as 11, sometimes as wee as 4. What that voice sings about is anything but childish. Her intricate songs swirl through verbal complexities stated in the simplest words but not the simplest sentences, while her musical sophistication harkens back to the marvelous sound webs of the blind Irish bard O'Carolan (Ó Cearbhalláin, 1670-1738), whose instrument was the harp, as is Newsom's.

So when on Ys' "Only Skin" she sings, "I'm the happiest woman among all women" in the voice of a 7- or 9-year-old, you hear a betwixt-and-between realm where the child is present in the woman and the woman is present in the child and a croaky crone hovers over both, all ages not implied but present. As song builds upon song, definitions collapse and regroup in interior landscapes traversed only with daring and in wonder.

Listen to The Milk-Eyed Mender's "Peach, Plum, Pear," and tell me that girl's voice is older than 7! (Cock your ear another way, and it sounds like a little boy.) In her first two albums, Newsom fearlessly abandons herself to her voice, letting nuances fall where they may. "I have read the right books/to interpret your looks ... We were galloping manic/to the mouth of the source/we were swallowing panic/in the face of its force" – and that song starts (or so I believe) with meeting someone in a supermarket.

I would be disappointed in an editor who allowed me to follow that sentence with five exclamation points, but five or 10 of them sum what I felt on first hearing Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender.

Ys' "Monkey & Bear" is a truly terrifying dissection of the sort of relationship that is often a marriage. (I've been married twice. When I say terrifying, I mean terrifying.) In Ys' "Sawdust & Diamonds," hearing this little-girl voice sing-yell the word "desire" – "Deeee-sire! Deeee-sire!" – is to roam in the realms of all my favorite psychologists: Sigmund Freud's polymorphous perversity, Carl Jung's collective unconscious, Marie-Louise von Franz's folktale analyses, James Hillman's The Dream and the Underworld, and R.D. Laing's The Politics of Experience, which ends with the sentence, "If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you I would let you know."

In 1969, Dylan released Nashville Skyline, in which he proved he could sing as prettily as anybody. There are three great songs on that album, but it lacks the tension between voice and subject that had been Dylan's signature revelatory playground.

That's very like what Newsom does in her recent three-disc Have One on Me. Bad critics gallop in herds, and the herd agrees that, as a writer for The Times of London put it, this album has "scarcely a trace of her old singing voice." Bilge. Newsom's default voice in Have One on Me is slightly older, age 11 or 12, rising sometimes to 14, occasionally even 20, with sudden descents back into 7 or 4 – sometimes in a single verse. The title cut and others are extraordinary, but, all in all, there are fewer exclamation points. The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys express states of being; Have One on Me is the work of an artist with something to prove. Still, in a love song like "Good Intentions Paving Company" she pronounces "baby" like a small child speaking to a doll, albeit a doll imbued with life, as girls' dolls really are.

Utter originality can do as it pleases.

Maybe she'll fizz out, as Laura Nyro, another genius, did after 1969's New York Tendaberry. Maybe she'll continue with albums in which there's at least one piece no one else could achieve, as Dylan has for decades. Genius is beyond category (as Duke Ellington would say) and beyond prediction. The Milk-Eyed Mender, Ys, and much of Have One on Me will stand any test as long as anyone dares test them.

You know more about yourself the more you delve into Newsom. That's the only test that matters.

Suddenly I remember the actress Louise Brooks, that fatal sprite of Pandora's Box, who told an interviewer, "I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you it will be with a knife."

Joanna Newsom will play Austin's Paramount Theatre Nov. 11.

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Joanna Newsom, Sahara Smith, Jolie Holland, Eilen Jewell, Elizabeth Cook

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