Words by Fiona Roberts
It’s 2004 and Joanna Newsom is on the cover of NME, in a row of elfin-figured females and bearded men who look like the police line-up after a Woodstock drugs bust. It’s the birth of the freak folk movement, an emerging avant-garde genre – and Joanna Newsom (along with Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective) is at the helm.
The Milk Eyed Mender was Newsom’s first widely recognised work, and she’s since built upon it with a great deal of success. Continually blurring the boundary between stories and songs, it contains 12 short tales rather than a few epic sagas, combining medieval-themed lyrics with the hippy spirit of the 60s and 70s. Filled with small, haunting songs and a spacey arrangement of harp, harpsichord and electronic piano, The Milk Eyed Mender is an idiosyncratic album which brought something truly innovative into the 00s music scene.
A myriad of creative ways have been employed to describe Newsom’s voice, some celebrate her unconventional tone, while others are a little more critical. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but there’s something beautiful about its untrained rawness. On The Milk Eyed Mender Newsom’s voice is especially unusual, but it makes the record what it is, and lends a hint of discord to all the fairy tale prettiness.
Touching upon past influences, like offbeat 60s folk by artists such as Vashti Bunyan – music where unusual voices were combined with simple, melodic instrumentals – Joanna Newsom helped to revive a more eccentric approach to contemporary folk music. Take Peach Plum Pear, one of the albums’ highlights: touching upon themes of shyness and self-doubt, it’s strangely upbeat, a teenage love story which is disguised by galloping harpsichord. It’s a twist upon classic folk narratives, with strange otherworldly images being bled into a contemporary story about love.
The same theme is continued in This Side of the Blue and Swansea, which both contain strangely chilling imagery, such as “How I would love to gnaw/to gnaw on your bones so white”. Newsom places this alongside sweeter lyrics and dream-like melodies, and the songs wash over you like you’ve swallowed a magical potion. Newsom’s harp-based songs are what she is most loved for. It’s when the music is most pretty that The Milk Eyed Mender is at its loveliest – Newsom’s fragile, wild voice and the emotionally raw images in her lyrics combine with its harmonious sound perfectly.
The Milk Eyed Mender combines the faraway past with more contemporary influences in a totally distinctive way. That was how it was with freak folk; a spitting out of the old – 60s Vashti Bunyan, Appalachian folk rhythms and medieval-themed stories – into something new and inspiring; revolutionary to music in the mid-00s. Nearly ten years later, we await Newsom’s next offering, while fondly remembering The Milk Eyed Mender – the record where it all began.
Follow Fiona Roberts at @fionaalice_