Probably the most innovative songs in the world: ‘Only Skin’ by Joanna Newsom

February 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm 3 comments

By Alan Lockey

As a former red-brick arts student (at least 80% of us are frustrated music journalists) I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve come to realise that there is something absurdly conceited about trying to apply objective labels to this most irreducibly subjective of art forms. There are very few indisputably ‘innovative’ moments in contemporary music  and Kathryn Tyler seems to have nabbed most of those already anyway!

So with that in mind, I’ll restrict my choices simply to songs that have left me agog with their jaw-dropping brilliance. I’ll explain how I feel about them and leave it up to the jury to decide whether they are truly innovative.  Self-justification over, let’s get down to the business of selection.

The first of those moments is Ys the second album by the Californian singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom and more specifically its centrepiece track, the 16 minute long ‘symphony’, ‘Only Skin’.

I was already an admirer of Joanna (can I call her Joanna??? Please?) having bought her debut, The Milk Eyed Mender. I was an instant fan, a lo-fi indie-folk chanteuse with a harp was never likely to be a difficult sell to my musical tastes. But it is her second album where I feel she really elevates her music to a new level, opening it out to more lush, heavily produced arrangements, featuring a variety of different instruments. It works. I still rate Ys as her finest album.

‘Only Skin’ is a glorious cacophony of medieval folk, Kate Bush and soaring string arrangements that carry more than a hint of old school Disney. With her classical leanings I imagine that a sheet music version does exist, in which case I pity the poor soul who had to transpose it. Joanna shifts time signatures and changes rhythms as frequently as she pursues new melodic flights of fancy. This is a lot: there are more hooks packed into this quarter of an hour than many artists manage in their entire career. And then there are the lyrics…

Most brilliant lyrics in contemporary music are so because of their content, their analysis, the tug at an empathetic cord that exists between performer and listener.   Like all the best lyrical poetry ‘Only Skin’ it is at once abstruse, yet heavily pregnant with potential meaning. You are transported to another world, unrecognisable from your own save for a scattering of vivid shared reference points.  Each listen reveals fresh layers of meaning, with pinpricks of poignant lucidity arising in completely different places to the previous play.  And despite the songs length, the poetry feels so natural and effortless that it never once veers towards bookish ostentation nor loses its emotional urgency. But the main reason why the lyrics in ‘Only Skin are so brilliant is simply because the words  sound so beautiful to listen to. I can’t think of a more elegantly crafted piece of language in contemporary music.

But enough of all that eulogising…because it’s not on Spotify and it’s too long for Youtube. You’ll have to make do with the equally sublime final track ‘Cosmia’ instead…














Entry filed under: Most innovative songs in the world.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  February 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Great tribute to a great song! I’ve got nothing to add, you’ve nailed it. Your remarks about her music are especially astute.

    And just HOW frustrated a music journalist are you? Are there any Lockey reviews kicking around the dusty corners of the internet?

  • 2. Sophie Byrne  |  February 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    So glad that Joanna has made it onto the list (yes we can call her that). You can listen to ‘Only Skin’, in a disjointed two parts on youtube:

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

  • […] Alan Lockey I am ignoring the basic concept of this blog series. I want to talk about ‘In […]


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