Last night I caught my breath in my throat during Joanna Newsom’s performance of Ys. The opening symphonic portion of her show at the Atlanta Symphony Hall was a complete realization of the five pieces on the album as a suite of music. This full album performance was a soul-stirring and beautiful experience, as the album is one of the most prized collections of music that I have come across within the past year. However, after the symphony left the stage, I stood only briefly to applaud them as I was assaulted back to my seat by a heady rush of emotions brought on by the harpist’s five-part symphony; this music has been a significant part of my life for the past year, I’ve recommended it to friends, and bought it as presents for a number of them. As a signpost in my internal geography, it has witnessed the tumultuous changes that have occurred in my life over the past year; it has stood by as my long-term relationship came to a necessary but nevertheless painful end, it has served as a soundtrack to my graduation from college, my lost months at a terrible job and lately, it has resurfaced as a springboard for spiritual and emotional rebirth.
As a year-old document that provides a context to such a pivotal time in my life, Ys is connected with a number of specific memories, many of them associated with driving great distances, as I’ve always felt, though I don’t always do this, that the album deserved a full listen from beginning to end. I remember her favorite line, prized more for its cadence than its content: “…and then the moonlight caught your eye…” I remember playing it for family and friends who thought it strange, atonal, or annoying; experiences that caused me to prize it even more, as the disapproval of others often breeds greater affection. Yet, no matter how familiar I was with the music up to this point, last night I was significantly disarmed by it; I felt tears well up during the beginning of “Emily,” my pulse quicken as the dramatic narrative of “Monkey and Bear” approached its inevitable climax, and a combination of the two of these reactions with an added sense of breathlessness at the onset of “Sawdust and Diamonds,” “Only Skin,” and “Cosmia.”
Though the performance of each of these songs contained enough mnemonic potential to launch a thousand wordy reflections, the most significant and achingly meaningful of these was “Sawdust and Diamonds.” Nearly eight and a half minutes into the song, Joanna sings these words:
Darling we will be fine; but what was yours and mine
Appears to me a sand castle
That the gibbering wave takes.
But if its all just the same, then will you say my name;
Say my name in the morning when the wave breaks.
Joanna’s lyrical tone here can be read a number of ways; last night I experienced it through two definitive perspectives, reflecting on the painful past and the hopeful future. Joanna suggests that as reassuring as it may be to be “fine,” the end is approaching, visible and nearly realized; she longs for her partner to “say her name,” to reconfirm her status, her context within the now collapsed castle of the past, looking towards the present moment, the present expression of desire. Listening to these words during last night’s performance, I interpreted them through my experience of the end of a significant long-term relationship. I internalized the comfort and fear in these lines as personally relevant, remembering the terrifying feeling that accompanies an awareness of the encroaching termination, recalling the endless conversations intended to assuage the constant pain of separation akin to that of a limb being slowly but steadily hewn off.
However my experience of the song shifted with my mood as the pain of the past yielded to the pleasure of recent events, recent memories and present feelings. Earlier in the song, Joanna gives her treatise on her partner’s apparent sadness a sense of cosmic relativity:
And though our bones may break, and our souls may separate-
Why the long face?
And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soul-
Why the long face?
The partner’s “long face” seems either invalid or misdirected here, a reaction to an earthly romantic relationship, which when considered within the scope of the existential dilemma of the Sein-zum-Tod, seems silly. Death is the ultimate signifier, underscoring any evaluative judgment placed upon expressions of despair over corporeal affairs. “Life is thundering blissful towards death,” Newsom sings in “Only Skin,” a sentiment that sums up one of the principle themes of the album: the triumphant thrust we all experience towards our eventual end. However, within “Sawdust and Diamonds,” such a morbid sense of relativity adds a new sense of value to the romantic relationships we do chose to form, despite such a terminal undercurrent.
This new sense of value established within the song stems initially from this sense of deathly relativity which yields to the emergence of the most repeated and, in my interpretation, significant word of the piece: “desire.” “You could have seen me through,” she sings, “but I could not undo that desire” repeating the word until it divorces itself from the context of the phrases, relating initially to the knowledge of “light” and end of “terror” but transforming into a secondary signifier for the song as a hopeful, powerful and passionate closing image.
The closing key word “desire,” empowered by the impending sense of encroaching death and the greater “wave” that awaits the folly of all human endeavors, becomes the triumphant banner with which the song ends. This split interpretation of despair and desire mirrors the personal shift through which my own life has moved from the time I first heard “Sawdust and Diamonds” to the moment I experienced it last night.