Joanna Newsom — Have One On Me (Disc 1)
It’s no secret that our attention spans are getting shorter. These days, we are grateful for albums that clock in at a half hour, and movies a tidy 80-90 minutes. So when Joanna Newsom has the audacity to release a triple album that runs over two hours, with songs at 6-12 minutes in length, there will be one of two reactions: we can either crown the achievement with a lofty “epic” label, or dismiss the record, as in a controversial PopMatters review, as inflated and self-indulgent. Because I haven’t yet listened to all three of Have One On Me‘s discs, I won’t get into the argument that Newsom could have trimmed away some of the fat. Breaking the album into three parts seems like a helpful gesture to make the glut more digestible, but I’d argue that, like Newsom’s 2006 release Ys (which only contained five very dense songs), you should take this on a song-by-song basis. Joanna Newsom is a pretty divisive figure, evoking hostility in some toward her idiosyncratic voice, and a triple album isn’t going to win any fans among those already predisposed to scorn her. Me? I like her just fine. I like what she’s doing but have never been entirely convinced by the execution. I’ve also been hesitant to get too invested because it feels a little like drinking the Kool-Aid sometimes. But this release could probably be termed an “event” album, and therefore I feel like it deserves the full explication treatment. Pour yourself a drink (ahem, have one on me), because this will take awhile.
The pensive lullaby, “Easy,” doesn’t feel like an opener, but it is one hell of a beautiful song. The tone alternates between anxiety and comfort, as Newsom sings, “We are tested and pained/ by what’s beyond our bed./ We are blessed and sustained/ by what is not said.” A simple piano melody adorned with strings slowly builds with cello and horns, before stripping itself bare again, leaving the speaker vulnerable. “Easy” seems to be about the pain of emotional distance, despite physical closeness. When she sings, “I am easy, / easy to keep,” she sounds haunted, less of a reassurance to the lover than a plea for him to stay. By the end of the song, she has become a virtual ghost, “like a Bloody Mary,/ seen in the mirror.”
The next song, the title track, doesn’t hang together quite as well. At 11 minutes, it becomes unmanageable. The first few verses struggle to find a foothold amid some predictable cascades of harp, before asserting itself; here Newsom sounds self-assured, almost aggressive in her vocal delivery of “Here’s Lola — ta-a! — to do / her famous Spider Dance for you!” After this initial bravado, though, the middle section gets lost. I’d be very interested to know what Newsom’s songwriting process is like. Does she have structures mapped out before beginning, or is her composition style more improvisational? I wonder if she just goes in half-cocked, letting the notes fall wherever they may. Sometimes I get the sense this is the case, which isn’t always bad — it can result in unpredictable and pleasantly surprising twists. And it’s not like she can’t handle 11-12 minute songs, either. “Emily” was one of my favorite songs on Ys and it never felt in danger of falling apart. However, in the case of “Have One On Me,” the piece doesn’t come together until the last four minutes, settling into a tense, percussive hypnosis. Newsom’s breathy vocals spiral out of control, espousing violent imagery of drunkenness, death, and cruelty, and then lapsing into stunned reverie in the aftermath.
After the shambling “Have One On Me,” next track “’81” has the indecency to sound like a pop song. It’s amazing that “’81” feels so huge despite the fact that it runs less than four minutes, making it one of the tightest, shortest songs out of the whole triple-disc set, and that it is composed only of a harp and Newsom’s voice. Also impressive is the way she makes the “otherworldly” seem so near and intimate through the power of simplicity; she might sing about hosting a dinner party in the Garden of Eden, but “’81” doesn’t sound like it was piped in directly from fairyland — you can practically hear the room she was playing in, the sense of space is that clear. Some see the standout track “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which draws influence from country, gospel and 70s soft-rock, as a departure, but I see it as an obvious descendent of such Milk-Eyed Mender tunes as “Inflammatory Writ,” with its saloon-nostalgic twang and piano pounding. The difference is that Newsom has smoothed away some of the rough edges and approached recording with a mature self-consciousness.
The mournful “No Provenance” find the speaker looking for safety in a past that might never have existed. “You burned me like a barn… safe and warm in your arms,” she sings, after spinning “gold clear out of straw,” like the girl from fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” Each time Newsom warmly sings the refrain, “in your arms,” sunny violins rise from behind to thaw the chilly atmosphere. But only for a too fleeting moment. This song makes a good pairing with “Easy,” with its themes of a tenuous love affair and appeals to the Fates, although not as strong or melodic as the earlier song. “No Provenance” also ties well with “’81″‘s wistful return to the Garden, as Newsom begs, “Pretty Johnny Appleseed,/ leave a trail that leads/ straight back down to the farm.” The memory of a better and simpler time on “the farm” is as much a myth as Johnny Appleseed himself.
Rounding out the first set, “Baby Birch” begins with voice and harp in a traditional hymn structure. The good news: Newsom’s voice has never sounded so silky. Not as good: the song remains inert for six minutes until the cymbals enter, creating some much-needed tension, except she immediately backs away from it and the song is over. It’s like dipping your toes in the water, finding it warm, but deciding not to dive in after all. I want to applaud her restraint here, but instead I wish she had been more committed.
On the subject of short attention spans, this review is really long, eh? And we’re only on part one. As someone who doesn’t work for a music publication (with tight deadlines and six other records to review), I have the luxury of spending time with the massive collection that is Have One On Me, as opposed to a hurried once-over. Stay tuned.