Joanna Newsom — Have One On Me (Disc 2)
A couple of stray thoughts before we get started on Part Two. First, in defense of Joanna Newsom’s voice: I’ve found that her singing has become one of my favorite aspects of her music. If she had a more conventional voice, her songs could be dismissed simply as “pretty music,” the kind of thing you might play in the background while getting dressed for the Renaissance Faire. Instead, I’m forced to engage with her strangeness and recognize that there is a person (and a personality) behind the music. I know that’s a faulty argument for liking something, a whiff of contrarian logic, but there you have it. On her first album, it often sounded like she only sang because it was a means to an end, i.e., conveying the lyrics to us, but on Have One On Me (and to a certain extent, Ys), she sounds like she’s enjoying herself, actively challenging her own vocal limitations. She’s turning what might have been a liability into an asset, and for that I respect her confidence.
Thinking about Newsom’s voice and the way many people react to it reminds me of a larger question: what do we expect from our singer-songwriters? At the most basic level, we expect them to be competent at songcraft. But we also want the songwriter to have the mind of a Poet when it comes to writing lyrics, to be a virtuoso guitar-player (pianist, harpist, etc), and possess a great set of pipes. It also helps if he or she is attractive. Of course, the chance of finding a human born with every single one of these qualities is rare — not unheard of, but let’s be realistic. I keep thinking about an infuriating conversation I once had with a college roommate; she demanded to know why Bob Dylan didn’t just hire someone else to sing his songs for him.
As we enter the second act of Have One On Me, we have a set that is more musically consistent than the first, with no departures or genre dalliances like part one’s “Good Intentions Paving Company.” Part two is also considerably more sparse, both in length (all of the shorter songs are here), and in the complexity and arrangement of instruments. Only “You and Me, Bess” and “In California” carry much beyond harp and voice, but the simplicity of this set is hardly a drawback; the songs here demand more careful attention and a deeper immersion into its dreamlike landscape. I’m starting to notice patterns (horse and sugar imagery, fairy tale references) and seeing a larger theme take shape: nothing is what it seems. Not love, friendships, personal histories, childhood, and certainly not the home you remember.
Part two begins with the light and (ambiguously) sweet “On a Good Day,” a stripped-down song that lasts little more than a moment. Despite such brevity, it feels like a fully-formed song instead of an intro or gateway to the rest of the album. When Newsom sings, “On a good day/ you can see the end from here,” it’s unclear whether “the end” refers to a conclusion that’s apocalyptic or a welcome relief. In the songs that follow, the darker interpretation emerges as Newsom explores images of execution and dismemberment.
“You And Me, Bess” has a precarious melody, moving along like a sleepy brook and somehow defying nature to follow a path of most resistance. The disorientation created by this fractured melody provides a solid foundation for the lyrics, punctuating the sense of “nothing is what it seems.” A speaker describes a close relationship between two friends (seemingly) on a journey “[picking] our way/ down to the beach / watching the waves,” but we soon learn her companion is actually a stolen horse, and the speaker’s punishment for theft is death on the gallows. “You and me, Bess/ we were as thick as thieves,” she proclaims. I wonder if I should interpret the character as delusional, believing she has found a spiritual sister and partner in crime, but finding instead that a horse is only a horse, unsympathetic to her plight. She appears to feel betrayed by her own delusions when she can no longer ignore the animal nature of her companion:
Who do you think that you are —
arching your hooves like a crane,
in the shallow gutter
that lines the boulevards,
crowded with folks
who just stare as I hang?
Almost every discussion I’ve seen so far about the album has referenced Joni Mitchell’s obvious influence. This is true of much of the first disc, but here I find a stronger Kate Bush influence, especially on the more frenzied portions of “In California,” (and later, on “Go Long”) where Newsom sings in the fragile upper register of her soprano. Part one’s “No Provenance” showed a speaker wishing that she could go back to the farm, but with “In California,” she finally achieves an uneasy homecoming, discovering “I am native to it, but I’m overgrown./ I have choked my roots/ on the earth.” She also makes a distinction between physical and emotional geography when she discourages her lover, “You cannot come and see me,” but rather invites him to “cross the border of my heart,” a nakedly sentimental statement wedged between more obscure imagery. “In California” reaches one of the most satisfying musical climaxes of the album so far: strings swirling, drums pounding, Newsom’s staccato voice soaring through the chaos.
To me, “Jackrabbits” is a weak point, the quietest song on a relatively quiet set. This one might have fared better as a closing track (although that would be a somewhat predictable move), but coming as it does between two stronger pieces, it feels a little flat. She sings in a weary whisper, and sounds genuinely tired when she says, “I was tired of being drunk./ My face cracked like a joke.” The only instrument here — the harp — is used sparingly, so when her playing grows more impassioned beneath the chorus, “I can love you again:/love you again,” the impact is felt deeply.
“Go Long” is an aching song that weaves together intricate harp melodies (the liner notes inform us that three harps were used — different kinds, I wonder?) as a backdrop for Newsom’s retelling of the Bluebeard story. Bluebeard, who gruesomely murdered his first six wives, and kept their bodies in a locked room for his seventh wife to find, is treated in “Go Long” like a broken manchild more worthy of the speaker’s sympathy than of fear. “You have been wronged,/ tore up since birth,” she sings early on, making excuses for his violence, but we also understand the difference between helping a hurt sparrow and taking in a man whose secret chamber is “gilded with the gold teeth/ of the women who loved you.” By the end, she has resigned herself to the role of the doomed seventh wife, singing, “What a woman does is unlock doors./ And it is not a question of locking/ or unlocking.” She accepts destruction as the inevitable outcome of loving somebody who is damaged.
The first moment of the next song is slightly jarring after “Go Long”‘s delicately-constructed nightmare. The piano-based “Occident,” by comparison, sounds earthy and soulful. I never thought of piano as a particularly heavy-sounding instrument before, but when played against the ethereal harp, the contrast is stark. Newsom’s voice is deeper here, too, eschewing the thin vulnerability of the other pieces on the disc; this is the closest she comes to sounding like a lounge-singer in a smoke-filled room. “Mercy me, the night is long,” she sings with all the world-weariness of a blues singer. The recurring theme of blunted nostalgia returns in lines like, “All my life, I’ve felt as though/ I’m inside a beautiful memory,/ replaying/ with the sound turned down low.”
And so we’re more than halfway through this opus. Part two is less flashy and maybe more refined than its earlier counterpart, but it’s still too soon to say whether I’m satisfied. So let’s continue to press onward.
P.S. Joanna Newsom is dating Andy Samberg? Really?