Album Review: Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me

Published on Noisetap.com, March 16, 2010.

For all the poeticism and subtle sophistication of its sparsely-produced 3 - 5 minute tracks, Joanna Newsom’s debut Milk Eyed Mender (2004) provided little clue as to the epic heights to which the flaxen-haired singer-songwriter-harpist would take us on her orchestral follow-up, Ys (2006). This thematically and sonically ambitious sophomore album (average song length: 10 minutes) frequently described as a Renaissance Faire romp would receive outstanding critical acclaim and end up on numerous “Best of” lists for both 2006 and the decade. Given this praise, the four-year wait for what Newsom would unveil after Ys was painfully long. Coule she really, we wondered, top an album that was itself magnum-opus-worthy? Enter Have One On Me—Newsom’s 2010, 2-hour length, triple disc release, the news of which had some wondering whether the album would prove as long and tiresome as the wait.

With a polarizing figure like Newsom, it’s inevitable that fans would themselves divide should her sound drastically change. And though the change on Have One is not drastic (the Lisa Simpson comparisons are likely to remain), significantly softened is the primitive, childlike nasality punctuated by mouse-like squeaks that characterized Newsom’s voice on Milk Eyed Mender—a timbre which had some complaining “affectation!” and others proclaiming “enchantment!” In the case of her new album, the latter camp may find themselves a tad disappointed. Have One On Me features more mature, accessible vocals, and Newsom’s songwriting and instrumentation also tread new ground, delivering complicated melodies and flirtations with gospel and blues that will no doubt fuel Joni Mitchell comparisons for years to come.

Have One’s tracks are nuanced changelings, constantly shifting form, genre, and periodic influence—but the changes are fluid, subtle, and effortless. One almost has to adopt the vocabulary of a perfumer or wine enthusiast to describe them: “Easy”—a varietal bouquet of classical strings and bluesy Gershwin-esque notes with a 14th Century woodwinds finish. “Good Intentions Paving Company”—attacks the palate with a pop piano riff, then reveals notes of rootsy alt-country before taking a gospel turn and leaving us with a piano driven, indie-pop aftertaste. It’s this sort of “language of the initiated” which turns people off both wine snobs and Pitchfork darlings like Newsom.

Standout track “in California” begins with a straightforward folk melody with solo harp until 4 minutes in when an alternately ascending and descending bass pizzicato prepares us for moments of lush orchestration, during which Newsom indulges us over and over with an achingly beautiful melodic phrase that somehow doesn’t become cloying. The song’s Kate Bush-esque vocal climax comes at 7 minutes, and ends on a quiet note of resignation for a love lost due to stubborn stasis and unbridgeable distance: “I am native to it, but I am overgrown / I have choked my roots on the earth, as rich as roe / Here, down in California.”

Unless I’m missing something during these relatively early stages of listening, song order on Have One doesn’t appear to be vital, which is a good thing given its density and length. It almost begs to be absorbed in stages, three or four songs at a time, if one truly longs to soak up the meandering complexities therein. There’s also enough variety here to please fans that prefer the classical and Anglo-Appalachian folk leanings of Ys. For example, there’s the medieval-baroque “Kingfisher,” the Celtic-Americana “Esme,” and a few solos harp and vocal showcases like “Jackrabbits,” and “Ribbon Bows.” The album’s most readily accessible tracks are “Baby Birch,” and “Good Intentions…”—both sure to cross over into more mainstream playlists, and are your best bets when introducing people to Newsom’s music. 

Have One On Me sustains Newsom’s reputation as a seminal and iconoclastic songstress, and if the wait for her next release proves as long as the previous, at least this “One” we have now provides us plenty of fodder for enchantment. 

 

Published March 16, 2010 on Noisetap.com.

 

Maya