Joanna Newsom is an artist without a genre, a poet, and a revelation with a harp. There are few people on this earth that I would willfully call a “genius” of any order, but watching Newsom perform the 16-minute-long feat that is her song “Only Skin” is just about as world-changing as Einstein’s theory of relativity.
With roots in composition and creative writing, Newsom defies boundaries with a style unlike any other singer-songwriter or folk artist in the modern sphere of influence. I personally discovered Newsom’s work around 2013. I’d become obsessed with “‘81” off of her 2010 album Have One on Me– I would still highly recommend this song as an entry point to her discography before taking on some of her heftier works.
What catches you first is the quality of her voice; it’s something similar to Kate Bush’s iconic nasal-rasp, but squeakier and softer around the edges. It was on my second, third and fourth listens, though, that I began to wonder if Newsom actually wrote those lyrics or if it was a classic piece of prose by some famous poet. The answer? It’s all her.
For the sake of my own amusement, let’s dissect a small portion of the aforementioned “Only Skin”:
I have got some business out at the edge of town
Candy weighing both of my pockets down
Till I can hardly stay afloat, from the weight of them
(and knowing how the commonfolk condemn
What it is I do, to you, to keep you warm:
Being a woman. Being a woman.)
But always up the mountainside you’re clambering
Groping blindly, hungry for anything;
Picking through your pocket linings —
Well, what is this?
Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?
There’s just, like, so much to geek over here.
This first verse is describing a woman’s sexual relationship with a man. The “candy” weighing down her pockets is the pleasure– both sexual and otherwise– she receives from her lover. “Being a woman,” she is condemned for her sexuality, or, what it is she does “to keep [her lover] warm.”
It’s in this second verse, though, that we get into the thick of it. Sisyphus is a mythological Greek king who was damned, due to his greed and trickery, to eternally push a boulder up a mountainside. The hunger Newsom is referring to seems overtly sexual and seemingly insatiable, implying infidelity, perhaps. The mention of sassafras, a New World era cure-all, seems to drive this point home, as it was often used to treat syphilis (sonically extremely similar to Sisyphus), among other STIs.
This is just a small portion, too, of the entire work of lyrical prose clocking in at nearly 1,300 non-repeating words. I just… don’t know how you couldn’t be excited by the pure mastery of craft that Newsom displays in this song.
Newsom’s other works are more than worthwhile as well, and her discography demonstrates a distinctive evolution in style and form. In her earlier works she played a lot with polyrhythms– or rhythms that are not clearly or distinctly from the same meter– though she outgrew this after her 2006 album, Ys. Newsom’s vocal style also changed after this release, having developed vocal nodules before the recording and premiere of her subsequent work, Have One on Me.
Newsom hasn’t released any new material since her 2015 album, Divers, though she’s kept undoubtedly busy after having her first child in 2017 with her husband, Andy Samberg.
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