Popular music has known its share of unusual voices. From Bob Dylan to Billy Corgan, singers whose voices might have initially aggravated the average listener have been able to achieve success. Some have not even always managed to sing in key, like Ian Curtis of Joy Division, who compensated for this deficiency by the exceptional strength and timbre of his voice. Regardless, the general consensus on those that have succeeded is usually that their voice somehow “fit” the music that they were singing. However vague and impressionistic this judgment might seem, it must be admitted on an intuitive level that there is some truth to it. This does not prevent these singers’ voices, of course, from occasionally slipping into the intolerable. Even in the space of a single album filled with hits, Corgan, for example, has attempted to sing on tracks for which his strange, nasally voice was clearly not appropriate. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness comes to mind. But the hope is that such vocalists hit the mark more often than they miss.
Then there is the Joanna Newsom of The Milk-Eyed Mender. Though it must perhaps be noted that her voice has shown considerable improvement since her horrendous 2004 debut, the fact remains that here — on Newsom’s first full-length release — the vocals are inexcusably terrible. Yet in spite of this seemingly obvious truth, there are numerous fans of the California native’s work who defend this album as her finest work. To some, Newsom’s subsequent releases have betrayed the ideal established by this early record by going more mainstream in their vocal approach. They make the bizarre claim that the nauseating voice she adopts on The Milk-Eyed Mender holds some sort of charm in its blissful naïveté, strangely endearing in its idiosyncrasy. In introducing the album to the uninitiated, they usually provide the disclaimer that once one gets past her initially off-putting vocals they will recognize its brilliance. The listener must not be deceived by this anticipation, however; those who make such claims are liars.
Most descriptions of Newsom’s voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender fail to capture the true depths of its horror. They settle for the standard — by now hackneyed — characterization of the vocals as “childlike.” At times, this may suffice. But at others, Newsom’s voice on the record is more reminiscent of a demented she-gnome or the deaf, half-idiot sister of some Laura Ingalls frontier family. Somewhere around the two minute mark of the song “Sadie,” Newsom launches into one of the most obnoxious vocal lines in recorded history. Even in parts that are relatively more whimsical, like “Sprout and the Bean,” her voice is incredibly irritating. It single-handedly ruins one of the few actually impressive harp performances on the album. As if this was not horrible enough, on “Peach, Plum, and Pear,” Newsom’s singing reaches new heights of insufferability. I defy the listener to sit through the repetition of the line “Nah nah nah-nah nah-nah” without clawing out his eyes. Her yodeling throughout the track, moreover, is plainly intolerable.
Still, while defenders of The Milk-Eyed Mender might be willing to allow that some are simply not “sophisticated” or “open-minded” enough to accept Newsom’s vocals, they often point to the use of the harp on the record as unimpeachable proof of its musical merit. They maintain that this cannot be contested, even by the staunchest critic. This only showcases the extent of their own ignorance, however. Most of the harp parts on The Milk-Eyed Mender are exceedingly simplistic. To be generous, they are perhaps comparable to Debussy’s harp orchestration of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, which would be more of a compliment if it were not one of the former’s most notorious blunders. Newsom exploits the harp’s naturally dreamy quality, covering over the sickly mushroom-nightmare that lies beneath. All too often, the harp is used to play extremely conventional folk chord progressions. Every time the harpsichord sounds in “Peach, Plum, Pear,” it's easy to imagine Mozart walking up to her and slapping her across the face with the sheet music to one of his minuets. Of course, Newsom’s admirers here applaud her for showing such courageous “ingenuity,” for not feeling shackled by the rules of traditional folk instrumentation. What they fail to recognize is that this is all part of Newsom’s gimmick, just another aspect of her calculated eccentricity. Perhaps one should give her credit, though. After all, enough dilettantes have been tricked by it to earn her an audience.
The last line of defense that is commonly trotted out in support of The Milk-Eyed Mender rests on Newsom’s celebrated reputation as a lyricist. Luckily, short work can be made of this claim. Nearly all of her so-called lyrical wit consists in the pseudo-clever combination of unexpected or unlikely words with one another. It results in what the Russian critic Vissarion Belinskii called, with reference to his friend Gogol's 1847 published correspondence, a “sluttish hullabaloo of words and phrases.” “I killed my dinner with karate/kick ’em in the face, taste the body.” This, along with a somber vocal line, is enough to make Newsom either seem cute or uncannily poetic. Other times, Newsom tries to give the impression of possessing some sort of sagely insight. This is most often accomplished by referencing huge concepts (like the nature of capitalism) in a sort of offhand, indirect manner, filled with knowing familiarity. Another way she achieves this effect is by waxing aphoristic, handing out negative axioms (“Never get so attached to a poem/you forget truth that lacks lyricism”) like she was reading directly out of Poor Richard's Almanack. In this way does Newsom appear to tap into some hidden reserve of folksy, homespun wisdom.
Thus, on a vocal, instrumental, and lyrical level, Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender proves an utter failure. Though her last few releases have shown signs of improvement, her first record stands as an eternal testament to the deluded tendency of many listeners to latch onto anything that seems to exhibit quaint eccentricity and call it brilliant, no matter how wretched the piece of music may be.