Whether or not you are familiar with her haunting, captivating sound, Visions of Joanna Newsom is worthy of a read, if only as an exploration of the many ways music and musical artists can effect different people. With her harsh, almost childlike voice and insightful lyrics, Newsom has been compared to Bob Dylan in the way she can embody the feelings and emotion of her audience. This collection mainly focuses on The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom’s ground-breaking first release, and offers a varied perspective on both the music and the artist. From personal articles and poems by friends and fans, to in-depth essays exploring, among other things, her voice and the criticism she has received, interlaced with quirky illustrations. The most moving and intriguing of the articles are those by people whose lives have been touched by Newsom’s work, most noteworthy being those by Dave Eggers and Pricilla Ann Cox, for whom tragedy and depression were made bearable with The Milk-Eyed Mender as their soundtrack.
I don’t think you would buy this book if you didn’t like Joanna Newsom, but while most articles offer an even, unbiased critique and analysis, there is one that may make even the most diehard fans cringe, as a blatant love letter verging on the downright creepy. Your Feyness, written by Tim Kahl is self-satisfied, quasi-erotic and slightly disturbing piece, which jars with the intellectual tenor of the rest of the book. While the deconstructions and analysis of the essays are well thought out and clearly of academic worth, they provide a strange contrast with the brief flashes of poetry and short, personal reactions to the songs. In any other book these clashes would be off-putting, but there is a strange mirroring here of the contrasting qualities of Newsom’s music.
It may seem a little unnecessary to explore in such depth a relatively new artist with so small a back catalogue, but the results show that it is an exercise worth doing. While the essays can be hard going, the stories of the way her words have touched lives and her voice has haunted and tainted memories underlines that Newsom is an artist is of greater import than many better known singers and songwriters.