Pity the poor alchemists. For centuries they grappled unsuccessfully with what Joanna Newsom has managed in just six short years; everything the self-professed harper from northern California touches appears to turn to gold, inciting breathless raves of a fervent devotion. Historically such a power might lead to self-destruction through greed, but from the winning generosity of the title in, Have One On Me ushers in a new era for Newsom as the poster girl for abundance. Presented as a triple album, though in truth it is shorter than some notorious doubles (ahem, OutKast), Have One On Me spans a luxurious two hours. Its eighteen carats are divided equally between the three discs with a thus far impenetrable reasoning that will keep fans guessing for months, and range from under two to eleven minutes in length. And the running time isn’t the only thing that’s lavish; the intricacy of Becca Mann’s eye-popping, handpainted cover portrait only matches the fecundity of Newsom’s imagination, which, melodically at least, has never been better.
Of course, Newsom’s base talent is anything but common or leaden; Have One On Me is more akin to making a silk purse out of a charming vintage dress than anything remotely as coarse as a sow’s ear. The edges on that wild, untamed voice that first freewheeled and squawked its way to fame (or infamy, depending on whom you ask) on 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender are even further tempered here than on the glorious follow-up, Ys, though the change is less immediately striking. Her trademark tumbling cadences and loopy calls to the ether remain, but they interject less frequently, an apparent restraint that stems, at least in part, from a diagnosis of nodes on her vocal cords early last year. But what her ‘new’ voice loses in terms of tics and foibles (which isn’t much) is more than compensated for by a refreshing contemporaneity; Newsom has never sounded so confident and poised in her vocals, unrecognisable from the child-crone yammerings of Walnut Whales.
Anyone expecting the taut, wordy exaltations of Ys may be thrown off-guard a little by Have One On Me. It’s often a case of torsion over tension as Newsom gently modulates her emphasis with a sighing grace, gliding rather than cartwheeling her way through most of the material. It can be slow going at first, but never less than exceptionally pretty. In terms of variety, the album is undeniably frontloaded; from the benevolently elegiac piano of ‘Easy’ to the distorted electric guitar licks that dapple the devastatingly baleful harp lament ‘Baby Birch’, the first disc ticks the most boxes of the three. Arguably the most intoxicating of its songs, the title track provides an imaginative spin on the biography of 19th century courtesan Lola Montez (who lends her name to both a mountain peak and lake in Newsom’s home county). Mirroring Montez’s extensive travels, arranger Ryan Francesconi imbues the song with exotic instrumentation from Australia and the Balkans as Newsom cavorts between scenes of sombre songbird reflection and a defiantly coquettish mischief.
Disc one also contains the album’s most big-hearted number, ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’, a sophisticated pop composition that touches on the scourge of all established singer-songwriters: the road song. Fortunately the driving remains largely incidental to the core subject matter (an emotional struggle between two lovers) and the elegant arrangement is country miles closer to late ‘70s Joni Mitchell than, say, Richard Marx. As ever, Newsom’s lyrics are enough to inspire a thesis (indeed, an academic book devoted to the singer has recently been published) and it’s tempting to trot them out to aid every point, but the word count just won’t allow it. Suffice to say, even at her most opaque on this album, she rarely fails to conjure a cogent or arresting image. Even on the shortest song, ‘On A Good Day’, which opens disc two, she applies a beautifully simple metaphor to describe the different forms that love can assume. Amidst songs of such complexity, the effect is flooring.
The triple whammy that makes up the central portion of the second disc makes for a dazzling sequence. Shades of Joni conquer the senses once more on ‘In California’, again looking back to her late ‘70s output with a magnetising splendour as a sparse vulnerability gives way to stirring orchestral flourishes and mimicked, urgent bird calls that jab at the heart. ‘Jackrabbits’ is similarly wrenching as Newsom’s narrator, backed only by her harp, desperately tries to convince another (and themselves) that their love can be resurrected. Finally, the thrillingly surrealistic ‘Go Long’ brings a power struggle between the sexes to life with a magical interplay of overlapping harps and kora (played by Kane Mathis), each picking out its own proud melody as if engaging in a wholly separate, instinctual conversation of their own, the musical equivalent of body language in an edgy seduction.
The third disc reintroduces some much-needed stridency with ‘Soft As Chalk’, a peculiar mishmash of barroom country and a supper club jazz sensibility that shows off Newsom’s piano skills. Live favourite ‘Esme’, an ode to her young niece, and the cinematic grandeur of ‘Autumn’ pass by pleasantly enough, but it’s the final run of songs that brings this three course meal to a satisfying finale. ‘Ribbon Bows’ is enticingly odd, cryptically pulling together religious musings, canine translations and traditional folk songs (the track appropriates some lyrics from ‘If I Had A Ribbon Bow’) into a fantasia of apparent whimsy; the soft, expansive ‘Kingfisher’ is an album standout graced with harpsichord and Bulgarian and medieval stringed instruments (the vielle and rebec, played by Shira Kammen) that combine with more familiar instruments to culminate in a stunning and all-too-brief pageant; and closing number ‘Does Not Suffice’ is suffocatingly effective in its observational, direct portrayal of a departing lover. “I have gotten into some terrible trouble / beneath your blank and rinsing gaze,” Newsom mourns, and that’s not even the half of it.
When it’s over, finally, the last thing you might feel inclined to do is to listen through the whole shebang right through again immediately, but Newsom has been clever in this. The use of part of the melody of ‘In California’ and hinted lyrical connections with ‘Easy’ (and, arguably, ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’) in ‘Does Not Suffice’ gets the mind whirring back to the beginning before you’ve even reached for the disc changer. Repeated listens will no doubt shed light on other thematic loops too; a work this dense and complex is ripe for obsession. It’s too early to say whether Have One On Me will ultimately supersede Ys as Newsom’s true masterpiece, but the golden girl’s fearless ambition and total creative control over the whole project is nothing short of awe inspiring. Epic in every sense.
[Drag City; March 1, 2010]
Tagged joanna newsom