You’d be forgiven for having more than a passing familiarity with this album already. It is, after all, a feature of most publications’ end-of-year lists, alongside the equally ubiquitous and yet slightly more obvious Arctic Monkeys. Ys does have the advantage of a cover featuring the delightful Miss Newsom dressed as what I will describe as a buxom sorceress. This is mainly because not only are ‘buxom’ and ‘sorceress’ two of my favourite words, they’re also two of my favourite things.
This, unfortunately, is what passes for an easy way into Ys. Almost as soon as the music begins, you’re allowed access to a strange cartoon mythological world ruled by astronomy and peopled by talking animals. It’s almost as if those medieval cartographers who marked unknown areas with annotations like ‘Land of Singing Foxes’ had actually been right. Van Dyke Park’s orchestra brings to mind those low-key Disney shorts that instead of featuring Mickey Mouse, tell stories of libraries coming to life at night, or of dawn choruses where the bluebells are actually ringing. It carries with it a sense that what you’re hearing might feel at times a little ridiculous, it is also deadly serious. And the epic nature of the compositions on display here (the shortest being ‘Cosmia’ at seven-and-a-half minutes) does little to dispel the idea of the Enchanted Kingdom.
Joanna’s singing voice brings to mind a slew of eccentric (and if you’ve read as many reviews of this as I have, slightly obvious) comparisons: Kate Bush; Tori Amos; Liz Fraser; even a little Bjork. It is sweet and ever so slightly nasal, but clearly it is a voice singing about things it believes in. Thus the inherent absurdity of hearing the phrase, “C’mon will you dance my darling?” intoned by the title characters in ‘Monkey & Bear’ drags human emotions out of the bestial players. The track itself (it being the most accessible and the most representative on offer) concerns the story of two star-crossed circus lovers and their inevitable demise. It’s as if Nick Cave had been brought up on Enid Blyton rather than Edgar Allen Poe.
Flying in the face of popular critical opinion, I’m not going to suggest that either Ys or Whatever People Say I Am… is the album of the year. Both come loaded with so much hype and with so many of their own particular flaws and triumphs. What I will suggest, is that Ys is a startlingly inventive and interesting album which is well worth a listen.