The Milk-Eyed Mender was a striking debut that set Joanna Newsom apart from her indie folk contemporaries. Its simplicity and depth, and the way it sounded timeless and fresh, made her a singular figure in that scene. On her second album, Ys (pronounced "ease"), she continues to move in a very different direction than her peers, and even a different one than what her audience might expect. The Milk-Eyed Mender's 12 gentle vignettes sounded like they were basking in sunlight; Ys is epic, restless, and demanding, made up of five dazzling, shape-shifting songs that range from seven to 16 minutes long. Newsom embarks on this adventure of an album with help from talents as diverse as engineer Steve Albini, arranger Van Dyke Parks, and producer Jim O'Rourke (who, come to think of it, is the perfect meeting point between Albini and Parks). Ys' boldly intricate sound plays like an embellished, illuminated, expanded version of Newsom's previous work. Parks' lavish, but never intrusive, orchestral arrangements sometimes make the album feel -- in the best possible way -- like a Broadway musical based on The Milk-Eyed Mender, particularly on the album closer, "Cosmia." Crucially, though, Ys isn't any less "real" than Newsom's other music just because it's more polished. The nature and craft imagery in her lyrics, the transporting sense of wonder and the one-of-a-kind voice of The Milk-Eyed Mender are here too, just in a much more refined and ambitious form: Ys is a gilt-edged, bone china teacup to Mender's earthenware mug.
Along with the beautifully filigreed arrangements and melodies, which mingle strings, jew's-harps, and spaghetti Western horns with Appalachian, Celtic, and even Asian influences, the album shows Newsom's development as a singer. She has more nuance and control, particularly over the keening edge of her voice, which is recorded so clearly that when it cracks, it tears the air like a tangible exclamation point. Ys' daring, plentiful wordplay makes it even more of a rarity: an extremely musically accomplished album with lyrics to match. On "Only Skin" alone, Newsom goes from rhyming "fishin' poles" with "swimmin' holes" to "heartbroken, inchoate." These songs are so full of words and plot twists that sometimes it feels more like you're reading them instead of listening to them, and indeed, actually reading the lyrics in the book-like liner notes reveals that Ys has a library's worth of children's stories, myths, romances, and of course, fairy tales woven into its words. As the album unfolds, it seems like Newsom can't get more ambitious (and more importantly, pull it off), but with each song, she does. Two of the best moments: the darkly whimsical fable "Monkey & Bear," a forest romp that boasts some of the album's best storytelling and some of Parks' liveliest arrangements, and "Sawdust & Diamonds," which is surreally sensual and coltish, with surprisingly direct lyrics: "From the top of the flight/Of the wide, white stairs/For the rest of my life/Do you wait for me there?" Ys isn't exactly a reinvention of Newsom's music, but it's so impressive that it's like a reintroduction to what makes her talent so special. Its breathtaking scope makes it a sometimes bewildering embarrassment of riches, or as one of "The Monkey and the Bear"'s lyrics puts it, "a table ceaselessly being set." Yes, Ys is a demanding listen, but it's also a rewarding and inspiring one. Letting it unfold and absorbing more each time you hear it is a delight.