NPR logo Joanna Newsom's Miniature Americana Symphony

Joanna Newsom's Miniature Americana Symphony

Emily

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Monday's Pick

  • Song: "Emily"
  • Artist: Joanna Newsom
  • CD: Ys
  • Genre: Indie-Folk

Joanna Newsom sings in a craggy, elfin drawl. hide caption

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On paper, Joanna Newsom's "Emily" seems like the kind of thing that would make ordinary mortals run screaming from the room — or at least quickly hit "skip" on their iPods. Start with her voice, a craggy elfin drawl. Add in a harp (not as in "mouth harp," or harmonica, but that other kind of harp), lyrics about "the meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree," and a 12-minute length that would make Yes proud. And let's not forget the moment when Newsom refers to "pa," followed by a few frails of a too-corny-for-words banjo.

So why, oh why, is it so hard not to keep returning to "Emily," the first (and best) track on Newsom's second album? Perhaps because nothing else released last year sounds quite like it. It's a miniature Americana symphony, complete with distinct movements and dramatic, soundtrack-worthy string accents courtesy of Van Dyke Parks, the old-school arranger who (thanks to his collaborations with Brian Wilson) knows a thing or two about making oddballs palatable.

In interviews, Newsom has said that "Emily" is about her sister and her fascination with astrology. That's certainly likely, but it also seems to be about comfort and guidance, as heard in the refrain: "Help me find my way back in / from the place where I have been." "Emily" is like an amble down a twisting, mysterious country road, with Newsom as an eccentric mountain-girl guide. But it's a road worth traveling, regardless of where it may lead next.

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