The Milk-Eyed Mender And The Patience of Vinyl

On September 7, 2016

by Alex Stern


Trying to keep up with new records often feels like trying to plug a dam with a piece of chewing gum; the deluge is going to keep happening whether you like it or not, and you’re going to miss some things. The Slow Burn is our column where writers talk about albums they “missed”—which in today’s music Twitter era, could mean they didn’t listen to it in the 5 days around when it came out—and why they regret they didn’t get to the album till now. This edition covers Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender. 

Who has time to sleep anymore? If you’re asleep, you’re falling behind.

Our culture’s all about: now. Formulate an opinion on the album that just dropped an hour ago now, answer my email now or I’ll have an aneurysm. I expect immediacy from you, you expect immediacy from me. Patience is a lost virtue. There’s just no time, and the bullshit seems to be flying faster and harder every year. That’s why I am thankful to have the luxury of listening to vinyl. You put the record down and let the needle do the work. The album will play in a fixed sequence; it’s a constant in a day full of variables. “Ah,” I exhale. The dust dances with the music, taking me back to the days of my carefree youth under a Clinton presidency.

As the dawn of a new Clinton regime is upon us, there’s been one record that I’ve gravitated to in these past hellish months: Joanna Newsom’s debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Before I continue, let’s take a quick peek into my past with Newsom.

I don’t think I listened to an entire song of hers until last year. The little I sampled I didn’t hate, I decided it just “wasn’t for me.” Really, I felt like I wasn’t intellectually sophisticated enough, based off of my own insecurities, to appreciate the music. Then, when the Roots sampled “The Book of Right On” on How I Got Over, I gave that song a shot, and again, “Not for me.”

As time passed and she released Ys, a five song, 55 minute album, followed by the triple disc Have One On Me,” I blinked and moved along. Then, “Sapokanikan,” the first single from her 2015 album Divers happened. Hearing Newsom’s miraculous voice over the military drums, sparkling piano released a rush of endorphins. I needed more. I opened Spotify and wouldn’t you know it, her music wasn’t there. Because I wasn’t buying albums digitally, procuring music through unsavory ways because of streaming services, or willing to spend money on records I wasn’t 90-100% sure I wanted, I moved along again.

Fast forward to one fateful afternoon in April 2016. I went to Harvest Records in Asheville, North Carolina, where I was taking a mini-vacation with friends. Flipping through their righteous collection of new records, I came upon the J section. There it was: her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender for, like, 12 bucks. It was time.

“I haven’t heard this before,” I told the woman at the register.

She paused. “You know what she sounds like, right?”

“Yeah,” I chuckled. I appreciated that she was ready to save me from making a mistake.

One listen exposed my fraudulent assumptions. She eases you into her world as her nimble fingers plucking the harp fades in on opener, “Bridges and Balloons.” Ease is the key word; you don’t feel anxious. Whether the songs are playful (the jaunty “Inflammatory Writ), sinister (“The Book of Right-On”) or melancholy, they do not spiral out of control. She tackles the messiness of emotions with a level head, seeping honesty and insight through the whimsy and dabbles in days-of-yore.

On “Bridges and Balloons,” she recalls a terminated relationship with acceptance, acknowledging “But ships are fallible, I say/And the nautical, like all things, fades.” There’s no bitterness nor delusion, just acceptance of the reality of love. This realism expressed through metaphor encapsulates the album’s world: romantic realism. She addresses this concept on the moving “En Gallop” warning, “Never get so attached to a poem you forget truth lacks lyricism.” Art helps us - the audience and artist - reckon with that lack of lyricism through our imagination. We can’t live forever in our imagination, though, can we? “It beats me, but I do not know,” she admits earlier, her voicing rising. Again, she sings of hopelessness with her eyes forward.

Throughout, she confronts heavy emotion without traces of wallow or self-pity. Take the immaculate gospel-country closer, “Crab, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie,” which finds the narrator reckoning with the dissolve of a relationship as she walks around town. “There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road,” she observes. Through imagery and direct lyrics, she captures the twister of emotions experienced during a breakup: anger, depression, a confusing burst of confidence and self-loathing. “I do as I please/Now I’m on my knees/Your skin is something that I stir into my tea,” she sings. What a sexy, mysterious metaphor. She consumed this person like sugar, but you know what happens to sugar in your hot drink? I could go on and transcribe all of the lyrics to illustrate my points, but I’ll just point you to the devastating closing album lines:

Just see me serenaded hourly, celebrated sourly

Dedicated dourly, waltzing with the open sea

Clam, crab, cockle, cowrie

Will you just look at me?

All she wants is for someone, something to comfort her. Of course, the molluscs and crustaceans cannot, leaving her utterly alone. Her vocal performance reflects her shifting emotions. She moves from a country-twang to falsetto to perfectly-timed whispers. She mines deep feeling from simple lyrical moments like in a string of “no’s”, or the way she bends the word “row.” Put this song on your next breakup playlist.

The track that’s most recently become a gut-puncher is “Sadie,” a meditation on loss, distance, and the death of her then-white lab, Sadie. On July 26th, my dog was put to sleep. Ellie, a yellow lab, was 13 years old. I wasn’t shocked since she was 13 and slowing down. After posting a eulogy on Facebook as a 21st century citizen like me is wont to do, I shielded my eyes (I was in public) and cried. “We pray and suspend the notion the notion that these lives do never end,” Newsom sings, referring to Sadie. I know that Ellie’s not barking for food or curled up on the couch, but in my mind, she still is. I didn’t spend every day of my life with her, obviously, but when I was away, I knew she would be there when I did come back home. For 13 out of my 24 years, she was a constant in my life, and I can’t 100% wrap my brain around that she’s gone. Whenever I go back home I know I’ll feel the emptiness. You wish and a fraction of you believes your dog will live forever, but of course nothing does. “All that we built/and all that we breathed/ burns irrevocably,” she sings. That’s how it goes.

Time is the 1972 Miami Dolphins. We don’t know how much time we got, but it’s never enough. I don’t know if we’re obsessed with immediacy because of our inevitable demise - I am- or because we’ve raised the ceiling on what’s possible to achieve in our lives. I won’t pine for the old days before all the newfangled social media and technological bric-a-brac, or recommend you take an hour out of their day to sit, think, and put on an entire record because most people don’t have the privilege to do so. I do hope, you remember to take even a second to look at a picture of your pet, sing a favorite lyric or just text an emoji to an old friend. With the world going to shit, we need to keep the people, the things, the music we love close because as Newsom sings in “Sadie,” “You do lose what you don’t hold.” And if you do have time to listen to a record, The Milk-Eyed Mender’s patience, calm, and rationality is the perfect antidote to 2016’s toxicity. Facing the darkness is hard, but Joanna Newsom is there to pull you through the muck.

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