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- Somerset House, London »
- Joanna Newsom »
Somerset House is a pretty perfect venue for Joanna Newsom. The grandiose, 18th Century square, with its Roman architecture and blanche-white walls, has a majestic verbosity about it that suits her music: the immense, almost improbable scope of her lyrics; the songs themselves sweeping aside conventional notions of length and lexicon in a way almost unheard of in popular ‘folk’ music since… Astral Weeks? The connection seems particularly relevant tonight as she opens tonight with ‘Bridges and Balloons’, the references to ‘caravels’ and Cair Paravel strangely in harmony with the peculiarly British surroundings. Fortunately the English summer has tonight deemed itself merciful, and above us hovers a sky of deep, unblemished blue.
She plays a clutch of new material, almost all on the piano, unsurprisingly complex and intelligent, yet hard to take in as a first encounter. She assures us self-deprecatingly that the songs are only half-complete, simultaneously chastising herself for forgetting her jumper, the colour gradually draining from the sky as the wind swirls around the stage. New songs aside, for anyone who’s seen Newsom before it’s a set-list that has little surprises; yet the beauty of her music is its sheer depth – there’s so much there in each song that you can hear her play them innumerable times and always find new parts, new lines and vocal ticks, to become enamoured with. ‘Emily’, particularly, with its wistful tale of careful star-gazing, strikes a particular chord tonight, as dreamy as the surroundings are. Similarly the crowd-pleasing ‘Peach Plum Pear’ and tonight’s closer, ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’, are perfectly suited to open-air rendition, her improbable voice bouncing merrily off the stony walls of the courtyard.
Indeed, for all the grandeur and eloquence of Newsom’s songs, it’s striking how often they return to personal themes – family and friends, homesteads, individual interaction with nature. As seagulls float above us, and the bells of the main clock chime on the quarter hour, it’s hard not to be swept up in Newsom’s particular wave of romanticism: the world she creates is one aware of the beauty of both great, epic forces, and personal moments of peace and serenity.
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