Over the course of a 30-year career, Joni Mitchell went from being a distinctive folk singer to a pompous artiste drowning in highfalutin orchestral arrangements. Whether Mitchell was her model or not, Joanna Newsom seems to have followed the same ill-advised path, but in only two years. Returning after her promising 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom moves away from folk-with-harp song structures to full-on string sections orchestrated by Brian Wilson cohort Van Dyke Parks, resulting in a collection of five opaque tracks that span almost 56 minutes. Ys is a risky gambit, and the ambitious project falls smack on its lavishly constructed face. In the environment of Mender's simple whimsy, Newsom's cutesy-pie voice and overly clever wordplay could be charming; in the presence of Parks' gossamer sonics, they drown amidst the waves of bombastically excruciating affectations. No question that Ys is a fully confident work its fairy-tale sense of lost love stretched to the dimensions of epic tragedy but it's a wholly airless effort as well. Some will salute its uncompromising spirit, and indeed, its adventurousness separates it from so many safe indie albums. But the willingness to try something bold shouldn't be so easily confused with doing something well.
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