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”
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?
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.