Joanna Newsom: “Have One on Me”
Perhaps more than any other to emerge in the past ten years, Joanna Newsom is an artist defined– almost wholly– by words. And why wouldn’t she be? The lady writes rambling folk songs in Renaissance-era meter, overlapping fairy tales with baroque imagery like a geeked-out homeschooler on steroids, rambling on for so long one suspects Bob Dylan would start eyeballing his watch impatiently. (Let’s be fair: Not every eleven-minute folk song can be “Desolation Row.”) Do you ever wonder why critics describe this lady using words like “elvin” and “kooky?” Me neither. She had no one to blame but herself. Did I mention she plays the harp and has a tendency to warble?
But there are other words to describe Joanna Newsom– lots of words. A few weeks ago, the first one on my list might have been “overrated,” or perhaps “unbearable,” but she’s got a new album that’s given me a whole new vocabulary. Have One on Me doesn’t disprove those earlier words so much as it proves them to be woefully insufficient– just as any words used to describe it are unlikely to stick for long.
Still, there are options. You could go the route of shock value. You could follow after British critic John Mulvey– the first, I think, to review this album– who somewhat cheekily labeled the album “pop.” That’s overstating it, of course, as is the slightly more measured term “approachable,” though it’s a narrative that has its merits: On her third album, and her first since 2006’s maddening Ys, Newsom has loosened up her arrangements; the songs still stretch out to well past the ten-minute mark sometimes, but here they’re loose, at times adopting spare, folksy vibes, elsewhere dipping into roadhouse blues. She’s also learned to sing: Even those who wrote her off as an untrainable voice (actually, those are her own words) will have a hard time denying the control she displays here. She’s no longer Bjork doing her best Billie Holiday, or Joni Mitchell put through a blender. She’s… soulful. It works.
Another track: Go for scare tactics. Use terrifying words like “triple album” and “two hour running time,” words made all the more terrifying by the singer/songwriter’s established tendency toward indulgence. Or you could look at it from another angle, using the words of the album’s own title, and say that Newsom’s third album is a landmark of generosity, a wealth of ideas. Indeed, it does have all the epic sprawl of the great double- and triple-albums, but I’d advise against invoking words like The White Album or Sign ‘o the Times. What made those albums great was their eclecticism– their bang for your buck. Newsom is less concerned with genre-hopping and diversity-showcasing. Her album is deep, not wide, a lengthy and endlessly complicated series of riffs on a theme.
Of course, Newsom couldn’t rightly be called a celebrated musician if all she had was words. Her sonic vocabulary is almost as large (and, at times, as anachronistic) as her linguistic one, and by digging deep, she reveals just how many colors there are in the rainbow of folk music. The title cut, for instance, might have you reaching for the word “jig;” opening number “Easy,” for words like “fractured torch song.” “Good Intentions Paving Company” is a raucous, bluesy jaunt. “Baby Birch” is a country-gospel song of hymn-like solemnity. And those are just from the first disc. But the best word to describe what’s going on here? “Folk.” Not indie folk, not Renaissance folk– just folk. And she’s one of the good folkies– the kind who knows that folk songs are just a razor’s edge away from jazz and blues, and that the interplay between Western and Eastern folk idioms is pregnant with cosmic possibilities. Take away the swords-and-sorcery motifs and the harp and suddenly she’s not so different from Dylan, or at least John Martyn.
But you can’t take away the fairy tales, the impossibly rambling and self-conscious poetry. You can complain about them, if you want to, but Newsom wouldn’t be Newsom without them. You can call them pretentious, and you might be right, but I get the feeling that there is no pretense at all here; this is just who she is. And she may be corny, but she isn’t bereft of talent: A song like “Good Intentions” is so loaded with internal rhyme, with puns and allusions and wordplay, you’re torn between head-scratching analysis and simply singing along. The beauty of Newsom’s work is that it challenges our sense of perspective, and engages on several levels at once. Is the title song an eleven-minute piece of historical fiction touching on themes of love, control, and desire– or is it an eleven-minute nursery rhyme about a spider? Technically, the answer is yes.
But Newsom’s words are rich in something else– in feeling. Or, if you prefer, in humanity. I’ve never been entirely sure what all her words mean, but here, for the first time, I’m sure that they mean something. The singer herself says the record is about different kinds of love– romantic, fraternal, divine– and about the concept of home. Critics have called it a map of the heart, a trajectory of love and longing. I think they’re all right. As to exactly what each of these stories is meant to suggest, what every mythological or fairy-tale allusion is meant to invoke, let me get back to you in six or eight months. What I can say right now is that the details here are important, and so is the big picture. On their own, these songs work as scenes, as character sketches. On a whole, the sequencing is deliberate, the connections more obvious on each listen, the album as a whole taking on the form of something incredibly dense and interrelated.
Still more words come to mind: Fantasy, whimsy, wonder– these are things that Newsom values. You can call the album indulgent if you wish, but I’ve come to think of it as exploratory. She’s feeling her way through these things, she’s taking her time, and she’s unearthing riches along the way. I love the childlike joy in her voice as she sings about the daddy longlegs in the title cut, and I love the gravity she brings to the heartache and quiet resolve of “Does Not Suffice,” the chilling closing song. I love how the winding passages of winds and percussion mirror her curiosity, and how the harp helps carry a sense of dignity. I love that passages of nearly impenetrable– and possibly silly– nursery-rhyme poetry give way to insights of extraordinary pathos and humor, and that both kinds of writing are given equal seriousness.
It’s a long album. I doubt even Newsom herself has actually listened to the whole thing, front to back, in one sitting. But the songs justify its length: There is no filler, and what’s more, having this kind of expansive canvas is necessary when you’re exploring such big ideas with this kind of dynamic range. It’s a sprawling playground on which Newsom’s obsessions and impulses are allowed to run free– and I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself saying that that’s a lot more enjoyable than it sounds. The album is excellent– but what else is it? Honestly, I just don’t think there are any more words to describe it.