Academic journal article Social Alternatives

'The Wild Blue Yonder Looms': Joanna Newsom's Wildness

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

'The Wild Blue Yonder Looms': Joanna Newsom's Wildness

Article excerpt

Notions of 'the wild', an untamed and natural space, exist as idealisations that imply dissatisfaction with contemporary urban and industrial landscapes. Nostalgic longing for integration between domestic and wild spaces may be communicated by various modes in popular culture. Reynolds argues that nostalgic feeling is not limited, as was argued seminally by Davis (1977), to sentimental longing for one's real past experiences, but instead can invoke a fabled or imagined past (Reynolds 2011: xxix). Nostalgic longing in popular music, and particularly in folk genres, is often communicated by invoking a binary between an idealised, utopian past and an inimical, malignant present.

Joanna Newsom's work elicits this binary subtly, using musical and extra-musical intertextuality to reference a fantastic provincial past while also portraying the natural world with a foreboding sense of imminent threat. Reynolds describes the 'freak folk' movement, in which Newsom's work is often categorised, as invoking 'the unsettled wilderness of early America; a self-reliant existence, outside society and remote from urban centres' (Reynolds, 2011: 344). This paper will examine the communication of a 'wildness' dichotomy in Newsom's oeuvre, created particularly through inter- and extra- textual associations, in which the wild is simultaneously nostalgically idealised and feared.


Joanna Newsom's music thrives on contrast. Its tempo is rarely fixed, but adjusts to suit lyrical content and flow. Its instrumentation may be drawn from the symphony orchestra, a baroque chamber ensemble, a modern rock band line-up or, occasionally, all of the above. Its melodic and harmonic material is sometimes predictable and at other times comprises acrobatic and unexpected leaps and shifts. The grain of Newsom's voice ranges from grating to soothing, from unkempt to refined, from muddy and gruffto bell-like in its purity and clarity. These contrasts are further articulated lyrically, as is observable where track titles set up polarities such as 'Sawdust and Diamonds', 'Sprout and the Bean' or 'Bridges and Balloons'. These contrary shifts lend a sense of fickleness or capriciousness, a wildness to Newsom's music that is intentionally constructed. Her subject matter, in particular her characterisation of nature, continues this tendency. Newsom often depicts a version of the natural world that is at once threatening and nurturing. This paper's title, taken from 'Swansea' on Newsom's debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender, captures her nostalgic rendering of nature's bounty and its menace:

Borne by wind, we southward blow,

While yonder, wild and blue,

the wild blue yonder looms.

'Til we are wracked with rheum,

by roads, by songs entombed. (Newsom 2004)

'The wild blue yonder' communicates a sense of freedom and open space, and with it a longing for a (perhaps mythical) time when this experience of nature was part of the dominant culture. Simultaneously in this passage the wild blue yonder 'looms' imposingly, and this sense of threat is reinforced as the verse completes with images of ailments and interment. Wild nature in Newsom's work is not simply malignant or benevolent; it varies erratically from being cast as one or the other, or both at once. This paper focuses on Newsom's 2006 album, Ys, arguing that it conveys a clearly constructed, nostalgic representation of 'the wild'. Using techniques associated with multimodal discourse analysis, I will demonstrate that the album musically, visually and lyrically communicates a longing for an imagined past in which natural and human spaces converge, where the conflicting serenity and threat of nature is heightened, and where the disjunct between the domesticated human and the uncultivated natural world is removed.

'Freak Folk'

Joanna Newsom's whimsical oeuvre tends to be categorised in the 'freak-folk' genre, variously called indie-folk', 'free-folk' or 'nu-folk', which often musically, visually and lyrically invokes constructions of nature and heritage. …

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