Approximately two centuries ago, when I saw Chicago’s Big Black play the Hammersmith Clarendon in London, the following occurred: in the heat of the performance, someone grabbed the neck of Steve Albini’s guitar, gripped it, and had his hand sliced open when Albini whipped it haughtily away. For the rest of the show, this aggrieved celebrant was flicking blood from his wound at Albini, in an act of profane anointment, until the white T-shirt of the Big Black frontman was pink with it. (Albini, needless to say, never blinked.) “That’s fucking crazy!” says Joanna Newsom, speaking from her home in Northern California, when I tell her about it. “What a great story. I wonder if he remembers . . . ”
THE DOGS OF FAME: “Knowing that people are videotaping me is the worst.”
Albini is our topic because it was he — in his capacity as a producer — who recorded Newsom’s voice and harp for her new full-length, Ys (out November 14 on Drag City), in which the crooked madrigals of her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, are exchanged for longer and more elaborate loop-de-loops through an idiosyncratic panorama of “felten mountains,” breaking hearts, doves made of gloves, and tiny people bouncing around in coracles.
Newsom, who had never heard Big Black or Albini’s subsequent project, Rapeman, was steered toward him by Drag City supremo Dan Koretsky. “The other people involved [with the album] were my idea, and certainly Dan had suggested a lot of things that I didn’t agree with, or declined to do, but I thought it was pretty perfect when he suggested Albini — that seemed like the thing to go with. I’ve heard Big Black now, and it’s awesome, but I hadn’t at the time — I’m sort of out of touch about a lot of music. What I did know, which was something that I’d heard again and again and again, was that he is the king of recording a live acoustic instrument. That he was able to capture this naturalness and presence that very few people could do. Also a sort of brutality that I felt I needed.”
“Personal brutality?”, I ask cautiously, imagining the attitudinous Albini issuing verbal smackdowns from behind the mixing board. “Oh no, no. More that he can preserve the innate brutality of the act of making music. I mean, his contribution is mainly one of incredible technical ability, but in terms of emotion and the energy of the room, what he was great at was just allowing me to feel like I was in my living room. He’s an incredibly great and supportive personality in that context, not scary at all. I know he’s known for his sharp wit and black humor and all that . . . ”
Ys doesn’t so much fulfill the expectations raised by The Milk-Eyed Mender as transcend them. Newsom’s antic, wizened, young/old voice is all her own, but it has strengthened and grown to take in other voices — the rural voice of Virginia ballad singer Texas Gladden, for example, creaking like a corridor to another time, or even the eldritch snarl of Billie Holiday. And the words . . . the words are Cormac McCarthy having tea with Stevie Smith in the land where the Bong Tree grows. Quaintness, precision, extremes of passion ironically regarded, acoustic resonances that trip each other through the long lines and pack the shorter ones with music — hang your heads, folk pretenders, because this it what it means to write lyrics. From “Sawdust and Diamonds”: “Drop a bell off of the dock/Blot it out in the sea/Drowning mute as a rock/Sounding mutiny.”