Joanna Newsom — Have One On Me (Disc 3)
I spent the better part of last week hermetically sealed inside Newsom’s music, living in this alien but meticulously detailed world she’s crafted. Friday night, when I finally had to listen to something else, I felt a little like a traitor. It was like leaving a country and knowing I might not be granted re-entry. Today, fortunately, I find that place just as welcoming and immersive as last week. Slate had a pretty good (and positive) write-up of the album today, called “Joanna Newsom Would Like Your Undivided Attention.” Naturally, discussions of the record have mostly focused on length; it’s interesting that it takes a triple album by Joanna Newsom (of all people) to make critics question what pop artists are allowed to ask of their listeners. Has this issue poisoned the album? Will Have One On Me be considered a masterpiece because of, or in spite of, its ability to sustain our interest for more than two hours? How much should that even matter as long as the songs are worthwhile? But most importantly, why are we so obsessed with our own attention spans (or lack thereof)?
On first impression, I like part three of Have One On Me more than the quieter second disc. Like disc one, it has a little more musical variety and assertiveness, and therefore makes a perfect bookend to the album as a whole. The PopMatters review I posted in a previous entry argues that Newsom could have pared down the album to make it stronger; this has stuck in my mind as I listened, so I’ve tried to consider which songs I would cut. Although there are a few songs that I don’t care for too much, I can still argue for their artistic merit and right to inclusion. The only song from the whole 18 track collection that I would offer up for sacrifice is “Autumn” from this last set. In the opening moments, it too closely echoes “Go Long,” but continues on limply, with no build or real melody. She even sounds bored in her vocal delivery.
The third disc opens with “Soft As Chalk,” which has the rough feel of a live track, like a piece of tossed-off studio tomfoolery, with splashes of missed piano notes and melodies that change direction and tempo every minute or so. The “chorus” (if it has a chorus) reaches a crescendo that sounds a little like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and her voice even hits a few notes with Grace Slick’s forcefulness. Despite its haphazard construction, “Soft As Chalk” has a charmingly loose sound, and has emerged one of my favorites on the album. Fear is a palpable theme here, as she sings, “Give love a little shove/ and it becomes terror,” and ultimately finds the speaker “cowering with my light,/ calling out/ Who is there?” It’s a heartbreaking image, someone so undone by the worst aspects of love.
“Esme” is written as a lullaby, and Newsom stretches each syllable over an impossible number of notes. She sounds positively awestruck singing lines like, “Taking so many photographs — / so amazed! –/ we’ve never seen a baby so newlyborn.” I don’t have much to say about “Esme” that can’t also be applied to the rest of the album, but it’s a solid and beautiful entry in the collection. “Ribbon Bows,” a kind of folk ballad, finds her in a reconciliatory mood, inviting her lover to “come and get your love,” explaining, “I only took it back/ because I thought you didn’t [want it.]” She sings with a soulful twang over mandolin and violins.
The penultimate piece, “Kingfisher,” is perhaps the grandest song on the album, a stately, medieval procession of flutes and deep, booming drums. It has an epic, cinematic sweep. I want to read the title as “Fisher King,” a reference to the castrated ruler of the Wasteland, which might not have been Newsom’s intention, but I can’t help but interpret the same apocalyptic overtones in the lyrics. She makes repeated references to failed crops and ashes; the lines near the end, “And I saw that my blood / had no bounds, / spreading in a circle like an atom bomb,” (the second mention of bombs) are particularly chilling. When she hums over the haunting instrumental break, I get goosebumps every time.
The last song, “Does Not Suffice,” brings the album full-circle, with its callbacks to “In California,” (a reprise) and “Easy,” (“everything that could remind you / of how easy I was not”). The song begins groggily, the piano and Newsom’s voice both hesitant at first, then gaining in confidence as the speaker steels her resolve for a breakup. She chastises her soon-to-be-ex-lover’s condescending platitudes, “It does not suffice / for you to say I am a sweet girl, / or to say you hate to see me sad / because of you.” Instead of talking it out, she insists on removing every trace of herself from his life. She presents the emptiness as a parting gift: “Everywhere I tried to love you / is yours again,/and only yours.” Her voice even fades into the background as the song comes to its final climax.
It’s been a very long time since I immersed myself in music this way, bringing a new record home from the store, poring over the lyrics, and trying to absorb every sound. Now the process seems like an exercise of self-discipline, but the payoff is still the same. The final verdict: amazing. Have One On Me is surprisingly inviting, starting with that title in big, bold letters, and only gets warmer and more welcoming on subsequent listens. Favorites: “Easy,” “Good Intentions Paving Company,” “You and Me, Bess,” “Go Long,” “Soft As Chalk,” and “Kingfisher.” These, of course, are subject to change given the mood of the day.
Listen: Joanna Newsom — “Kingfisher”