For the Record: "The Milk-Eyed Mender"

Joanna Newsom's fantastically winding debut revisited

The Milk-Eyed Mender
Courtesy Drag City

Joanna Newsom doesn’t get enough credit for her album covers. Her 2006 breakthrough “Ys” bears a detailed, Northern Renaissance-style portrait of the harpist holding a scimitar, while a fittingly maximalist rococo assemblage tops her 2010 triple-album “Have One on Me.” My favorite, though, is her first: the patchwork pictures of planes, balloons, narwhals, and more that encircle a macaroni-encrusted photograph of Newsom on the cover of her 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender.”

A lot has changed for Joanna Newsom in the decade since she released “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” She’s collaborated with the quasi-mythical musician Van Dyke Parks, modeled for Armani, and married the man responsible for “I Just Had Sex” (Andy Samberg, not Akon). If she wanted to take a page from the books of Annie Clark and Ms. Shawn Carter, she could title her upcoming fourth album “Joanna Newsom” and no one would bat an eyelid.



It would be easy to treat “The Milk-Eyed Mender” as a sort of quaint, crystallized origin story for Joanna Newsom’s growing legend. Set alongside her other albums, its 12 songs are shorter, its lyrics less Spenserian, its singing less tuned—and you can forget about orchestral arrangements. In a world biased toward big, expensive statements, “The Milk-Eyed Mender” is no musical Versailles. But the album represents much more than a juvenile sketch, a proof of concept for a future masterpiece—it is a masterpiece, itself, and one that should stand on its own in Joanna Newsom’s career.


You won’t hear it on any party playlists, but “The Milk-Eyed Mender” is all about rhythm, which is what initially drew me to it as a J Dilla and RZA-obsessed teenager. From the stuttering harp loops of “Bridges and Balloons” that open the album, to the hidden waltz of “Cassiopeia,” to the harpsichord avalanche that engulfs the end of “Peach, Plum, Pear,” “The Milk-Eyed Mender” is driven by the textured pulses Newsom weaves around her wavering voice. It’s no mistake that Joanna Newsom has called the album her “love-song to the harp,” because it’s the one on which her skill on the instrument takes center stage. Sometimes her ideas are simple: the subtle syncopation in “The Sprout and the Bean” or the chopped arpeggios laid bare in “The Book of Right-On”—which was later sampled by The Roots, if the hip-hop comparison seems iffy at first glance—but they always work. Comparing the punctuated miniatures of “The Milk-Eyed Mender” to the gorgeously meandering tapestries of “Ys” is like stacking David Foster Wallace’s essays up against “Infinite Jest”—why bother?


Speaking of authors, Joanna Newsom mentions exactly one on “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” when a character “fashion[s] a cap from a page of Camus.” It’s a strange moment—somehow, even as an electric organ bubbles beneath the line, the reference feels anachronistic, as if the album on which it appears should easily predate “The Stranger.” To be fair, one song on it does: “Three Little Babes,” an Appalachian traditional by Texas Gladden. But even the rest of “The Milk-Eyed Mender” evokes the medieval more than the millennial, with its mentions of knights, dragons, caravels, and kings. To me, though, it’s the total absence of irony that makes “The Milk-Eyed Mender” seem from a different time. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about the way Newsom paints herself as “big-boned and fey” in “Sprout and the Bean”; not a flippant syllable to be found in this stunning, title-dropping stanza from “Sadie”: “Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender / You and I, and a love so tender / Is stretched on the hoop where I stitch this adage: / ‘Bless this house and its heart so savage.’” There were many, many great albums released in 2004—“The College Dropout,” “Franz Ferdinand,” “Blueberry Boat,” “Funeral”—but none as unaffected and endearing as Joanna Newsom’s debut.


It’s almost a cliché to call Joanna Newsom uncool at this point. Make anyone reach for a dictionary (or, in the case of “Cassiopeia,” a copy of Edith Hamilton) and they’ll assume your ideas are as esoteric and eggheaded as your words. But if the songs on “The Milk-Eyed Mender” are about anything, it’s the mundane: a departed dog (“Sadie”), a flirtatious encounter gone wrong (“Peach, Plum, Pear”), and dropping out of school (“en Gallop”). Even the album’s most self-awarely Saussurean song, “This Side of the Blue,” (“And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers / And we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words!”) is ultimately just about getting on with day-to-day life. It’s been talked about more with Joanna Newsom’s later albums, but there’s a unique literary quality to “The Milk-Eyed Mender” as well; one that, for a musical comparison, evokes Nick Drake’s lilting epigrams and Jeff Mangum’s richly physical images. Rarity is the mother of coolness, and Joanna Newsom’s talent is rare—if you or I or anyone else tried to recreate the words that make up “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” it’d come out sounding like “Puff, the Magic Dragon” fan fiction.


It’s worth listening to “Walnut Whales” and “Yarn and Glue,” the two demo EPs that Joanna Newsom put out before Will Oldham convinced Drag City to finance her full-length debut, if only for the realization of just how painstakingly planned and calculated “The Milk-Eyed Mender” is. The early EP versions of the album’s songs often feature wildly different tempo and instrumentation, as well as more subtle discrepancies in performance style and word choice (Newsom has admitted to an “obsessiveness over syntax.”) There’s also the mostly undiscussed matter of which songs actually ended up appearing on “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” Back in 2004, Newsom sacrificed many great songs to obscurity (“What We Have Known,” “Erin,” “Flying a Kite”) simply because she couldn’t perform them “without feeling a little disingenuous.” These days, it feels trite to talk about artistic vision, but take this for what it’s worth: every syllable, note, and second of silence on “The Milk-Eyed Mender” is there because Joanna Newsom wanted it to be.

—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at


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