A Tone of Voice
Given her warble is one of sheer individuality and idiosyncrasy, it's no surprise that the tenor of each Joanna Newsom album has been set by her voice. On her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, it was a wild squawk, untrained and untethered, guffawing on every lyrical punchline, screeching with the very joy of simply playing music. As befitting an album that seemed almost preciously naïve, the sweet work of a pure soul untouched by popular music and blissfully unaware of artifice.
On 2006's glittering, dazzling Ys, Newsom's wild voice cracked like a whip, spitting out every enunciated syllable, intoning every stacked-up stanza with diction that drew attention to the sheer, unadulterated majesty of its poetry. As befitting an album in which every single note, node, and notion in its five song, hour-long song-cycle was meticulously plotted to the point of perfection.
Now, on 2010's colossal triple-album, Have One On Me, Newsom's singing is utterly beautiful, tender, gentle; like a sweet breeze rustling a sugar maple's leaves. All of the tremors and squeaks of her original screech have been smoothed out, her polished-stone voice rolling syllables into honeyed slurs. As befitting an album on which Newsom's muse is given abundant, ever-apparent free-reign —songs, 18 of them, ranging from one minute to 11, laid out end on end for two hours— and on which her music sounds so confident that it's almost casual, Newsom's newfound tone-of-voice makes her seem comfortable in her own skin.
The Loss of Compositional Innocence
Newsom's first two works were albums that could be read as singular studies: Ys essentially demanded you listen to it from beginning to end; its odd-metered polyrhythms creating a sense of perpetual forward motion; its separate compositions working like interlocking pieces; its syrupy Van Dyke Parks orchestrations running from one song to the next. Have One On Me, however, is a work wildly varied. Its many compositions are at turns soulful and hymnal, sometimes dappled with hand-drums and shot with charges of guitar, othertimes delicately skeletal; the whole shifting through a range of emotions, evocations, and ideas that offer contradictory thoughts and differing experiences as listener. Even if you take it all in in a single sitting.
Given a 124-minute movie is hardly out of the ordinary, it seems strange that few will be able to find the time to ever listen to this 3LP in its sequential entirety; but, unlike, say, Zen Arcade or The Hazards of Love, it doesn't really matter if you take in a smattering of songs from here, or a scattering from there. And, given the set presents such an overwhelming onslaught of information, perhaps it's only natural people will only come to truly know this whole piece by piece.
Whilst there are a few lyrical oddities (like the title-track, an 11-minute remnant from the Ys era that details the life of 19th century courtesan Lola Montez, who infamous 'spider dance' ensnared King Ludwig I of Bavaria), Have One On Me is an album searching for a sense of home in the face of loss: lost innocence, lost friends, lost love, lost life.
Even when Newsom uncovers something truly splendid, as in "Esme," an overwhelmingly beautiful ode written to a newborn child, it has its own dark counter creating an absence in the face of such presence: "Baby Birch," whose lament sounds for someone who shall remain forever unknown, and ends with a sign-off "be at peace, baby/and be gone"; suggesting dreams of imminent motherhood dashed (a thought eerie when couple with "A Good Day"'s "I had begun to fill in all the lines/right down to what we'd name her.")
Home is hoped to serve as an elusive respite from these stings of fate. "Autumn," a sorrowed harper's lament that speaks of changing seasons in weeping strings and honks of woodwind, sees a symbolic change-of-seasons occur due to the lack of "him who my runes shine," yet it finds Newsom declaring, on close: "you can't always stick around/but when the final count is done/I will be in my hometown/I will be in my hometown."
In 2007, Newsom spoke effusively of the California-countryside home she'd just bought to Pitchfork ("there's, like, 20 rosebushes blooming right now, all different colors, and jasmine and irises and peonies, and two cherry trees"), and Have One On Me is rich with images of gardens and earth, springs and soil, digging and planting. Of taking up roots, and hoping for the best. "'81" uses the Garden of Eden as prism for any kind of soil cultivation; tilling writ as the very notions of society. "In California" find Newsom "fully abandoning any thought of anywhere but home," but doing so as a kind of romantic delusion.
The dark counter to that daydreaming comes when "In California" is reprised on the stark piano sign-off "Does Not Suffice," the once-sunny melody turned shadowy in Newsom's most straight-forward song since "'En Gallop.'" It's a breakup song, plain and simple. Hearing the narrator sing of packing up her "pretty dresses" brings back memories of Smog's post-relationship creep-out "All Your Women Things" (from 1996's The Doctor Came at Dawn), a thought that seems titillating when you consider that Newsom and Smog's Bill Callahan used to date; but the 'who' of the piece matters less than the universality of it all. Newsom's sung songs obviously written unto people before —the verbose "Emily" from Ys was a huge hymn to her sister— but that known fact never made them clearer. Here, she sings the utterly universal unto no one specific: "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," she dolefully drawls, with requisite lack of gusto, before the song tilts into a dramatic abyss of echo to end the (triple) album.
It's a 'down' ending to an album that, for many, will be their most 'up' (with) Newsom experience. In spite of its sizable length and unfathomable depth, Have One On Me is her least-demanding album yet. Armed with more beautiful singing, more rich orchestration, and more open emotion, there's not a difficult note on here; it's two hours amounting to a staggering portrait of an artist defiantly staking her claim as one of the greatest of the 21st century.
Record Label: Drag City
Release Date: February 23, 2010