Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sufjan Stevens, The Barbican, London, 3.11.2006 + Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'Ys' by Joanna Newsom

In my dream version of Heat magazine, the front page would be Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens caught drunkenly swordfighting (in between 'Paul Auster: look at me now!' and 'Slavoj Zizek's most emotional interview EVER'). They are made for each other, really: they both did creative writing MFAs and never penned the Great American Novel but instead ended up writing lyrics that mix intimate confession with flights of magic realism; they both command a symphony orchestra as expertly as they play their harp or their banjo; they both mix the idioms of folk and pop with an uncompromising experimentalism; they both seem to possess ambition as boundless as their talent. They're both chung tings. They both make me weep like a bitch.

The Barbican, where I saw Sufjan Stevens on Friday, is also where I saw Joanna Newsom solo last year, and where I'll be seeing her again in January (with the London Symphony Orchestra!) It warms my heart that oddities like this can sell out a big venue months in advance – OK, they're not doing three nights at the Millennium Dome like Justin, but it's something. My girlfriend pointed out that if you want to pick up a winsome indie boy with a copy of Pale Fire in his manbag, you'll never find a better hunting ground.

To my eternal self-satisfaction, I saw Stevens in the back room of a pub in 2003 when Michigan was still only available in import and no one, including me, really knew who he was. That, of course, was just guitar or banjo beneath Stevens' falsetto, which, as I put it at the time, 'fell over the room like an unexpected snowfall' – see, I was already smitten. Last night, however, the stage was full: piano, xylophone, oboe, horn, trumpet, flute, bass, and more, with the whole band wearing butterfly wings and Stevens himself wearing big hawk wings, plus projected visuals. It was a parade – although even better was when he sang quiet songs like John Wayne Gacy Jr. and I Think That Dress Looks Nice On You almost unaccompanied.

The finest moment of Stevens' faultless performance was when, during The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts, he went over to the pile of inflatable Superman dolls at the side of the stage and started hurling them into the audience one by one. They never flew very far – and that image, of a well-intentioned hero throwing himself into the unknown again and again, his optimism never quite defeated, could not have been more apposite – so many of Stevens' songs are about noble failures, whether it's Adlai Stevenson or Stevens himself.

I'd love to see Stevens try something like Ys, with just five songs instead of a dozen or two-dozen. The longest, Only Skin, is seventeen minutes, with thirteen hundred words of lyrics (i.e. quite a bit longer than this review - if, that is, you were to set it to music, a task we should probably leave for pious future generations). Newsom is almost more a librettist than a lyricist. As you can read in this fantastic Wire interview, the lyrics are all loosely connected to the Breton myth of the eponymous drowned city. Oh, and our favourite harpist has been working with Steve Albini, Brian Wilson-collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and a thirty-strong orchestra. The point is, even if this project had been a grand failure, it would still have been fascinating – but in fact it's a spectacular success.

Music writers, like figure-skating judges, are not supposed to give perfect scores. That's for our children to decide – a classic must stand the test of time. But I'm giving Ys 10/10, because, if this doesn't get 10/10, nothing will. (Although, bafflingly, I notice that Rolling Stone give 'this EP' two stars out of five! They are going to be embarrassed in the morning.) Best album of the year? Without a doubt. Best album of the decade? I'm not quite ready to say it's better than all of these, but give me a minute to work up the courage.

People worried that all these strings would make Ys a little too syrupy. And, like Stevens' Illinois, it does have the occasional hint of the Broadway Musical. But the orchestration here is no less subtle and emotionally articulate than Newsom's harp. She skips through tempos and time signatures so fast that, as she admits in the interview, it's a wonder the other musicians can keep up.

Newsom sings as beautifully as ever. Endearingly, she still squeaks like a dog-toy on the occasional word; I remember when I first played 'Bridges and Balloons' to my friend Raoul, his response was 'I hate this more than anything I've ever heard' and later 'This should be banned'. Well, each to his own. But the magical things Newsom does with little phrases like 'But Ursula, we've got to eat something' or 'Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being' is something no mortal human should have to miss.

For me, though, the greatest triumph is the lyrics. They make wonderful reading even without the music – my favourite is the comparatively straightforward 'Monkey and Bear', about a love affair between an organ-grinding monkey and a dancing bear who are plotting their escape from servitude. Newsom has listed Nabokov and Hemingway as her favourite authors, and those aren't the names I would have guessed - not fairytale enough - but it's clear she has learnt from the masters.

Ultimately, I barely feel qualified to review this album. It's a work of art that may take me years to grasp. Music writers, like detectives, are also not supposed to get emotionally involved in what they do. So writing that I nearly burst into tears in Sainsbury's listening to Ys is as bad as standing up in court and admitting I slept with the suspect. Well, so be it. As you will all know by now, I'm a maverick who doesn't play by the rules (except, of course, those of grammar, which I will defend with my very life). Burial is all very well, but this... I can't imagine how this album could be any better; I can hardly imagine how any album could be any better.

10/10

Released 6/11 on Drag City

6 comments:

thom said...

In spite of generally sharing Raoul's opinion I almost want to listen to Newsom after reading this...

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