Joanna Newsom’s album Ys is an odd but beguiling creation. Named after a mythical Breton city, it is a chimerical blend of psychedelic folk, Broadway musical and orchestral pop on which Newsom, a 24-year-old Californian, plays harp and sings in a dipping, quirkily intonated style reminiscent of Kate Bush and Björk.
Her lyrics are densely poetic and full of archaisms such as “thee” and “fain”. It sounds desperately pretentious but in practice Ys (pronounced “ee-se”) is a daring and genuinely eccentric work.
This concert, the first in a series of events celebrating the Barbican’s 25th anniversary, teamed her with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was a superb combination. Ys’s orchestral arrangements – devised by Van Dyke Parks, who worked with Brian Wilson on his great “lost” album Smile – were not so much recreated by the LSO as given added heft, though never to the extent of drowning out Newsom and her two band-mates, a drummer and banjo player.
Ys’s five songs – sprawling affairs, the longest of which lasts 17 minutes – were played in the order they appear on the album. “Emily”, the opener, was the perkiest, the orchestra adding a dash of Broadway colour to Newsom’s puzzling yet affecting vocals: astronomy was one of the song’s themes, deftly worked into childhood reminiscences.
“Monkey & Bear” wove together light and darkness like a fairy tale, while “Sawdust & Diamonds” – performed alone by Newsom – was powerful and elegiac. “Only Skin” and “Cosmia” were less vivid, though still contained flashes of outstanding musicianship.
Previously I had thought the harp was a preposterous instrument best left to angels and elves, but Newsom’s use of it was a revelation. At times her hands caressed the strings, at others she clawed at them: the result was a supple counterpoint to the wild ups and downs of her vocal phrasing. She is a class apart from other singer-songwriters. ★★★★★
Tel +44 207 638 4141. Details of ‘Barbican at 25’ at www.barbican.org.uk/25/events