When I try to come up with comparisons to what Joanna Newsom is currently doing in music, I find it hard to find anything that does her justice. Until I listened to Have One On Me, I would say Beach House’s Teen Dream was my favorite album of the year. But now, and nothing against Beach House’s terrific album, but it’s like they are playing different sports. And that got me to Kobe Bryant. Now, as a greater Los Angeles resident, I am consistently reminded of the greatness of Bryant. But, he has been here for more than 10 years and it is easy to take him for granted. Likewise, music critics consistently give Newsom the highest praise, but it is easy to just take her brand of harp-folk as that-thing-she-does. She makes it look easy like Kobe does on the court. And, much as the east-coast public is asleep by the time Bryant starts most of his games, so is most of the music listening public asleep to the sounds of Newsom. Whether it be her voice, which I’ve heard compared to a dying dolphin, to her song length, which gives even the most patient listeners cause to twiddle their thumbs, she writes music that is clearly not for everyone. But still, I’d be betraying myself and anyone reading this to deny that Joanna Newsom has created an album that can stand up to any other album. Ever. Period. Like Kobe.
My greatest fear with Joanna Newsom before I heard this album was that the easily accessible, often beautiful melodies of here first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, were a thing of the past. Her album Ys was such a radically different record (though rewarding for very different reasons) that I was bummed to think she would never write anything as sonically weird and creative as “Peach, Plum, Pear” or as overwhelmingly beautiful as “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie”. And for the first three songs of Have One On Me, my fear only grew. But as a whole, Newsom has managed to marry her two albums in a happy medium. They say you can’t please everyone, but Joanna Newsom has managed to combine two radically different song-writing styles and make a third that is very much her own, and very much an experience with a record like no other. I almost feel uncomfortable writing about it. I can’t remember hearing an album where I actually debated whether or not it was above criticism. It’s not, but I did debate it.
So what happened four songs into Have One On Me that alleviated my fears? The song is “Good Intentions Paving Company” and if ever Joanna Newsom wrote a single, this is it. Obviously, it is still far too strange and long for pop radio, but Newsom uses road trip breeziness and revival-gospel to create a number that is a happy moment made audible. It’s a song that makes you want to fall in love and play with a puppy and all those things that you forget to do throughout your life. This is why I talked about basketball earlier, because I knew I would get mushy talking about this harpist I like.
But this album is full of emotional moments, moments you can’t help but imagine being moved to tears, even if you are not actually moved to do so. The first that comes to mind is the album’s crescendo, the stunning “Does Not Suffice”. As song 18, the listener has been through quite a journey to get to this point, and like the last pages of The Great Gatsby or One Hundred Years Of Solitude, it is chill-inducing. The melody is the same as the album’s half-way point song, “In California”. But where that song displays a confidence in going-it alone, “Does Not Suffice” is naked and vulnerable. Images of empty drawers, lying next to someone you no longer love, and unused fishing gear haunt, but most exceptional is Newsom’s voice, more confident and controlled on this record than ever before, that finds itself nearly out-of-control, complete with her trademark squeaks. And as she la-la-la’s away, her voice fades as if through a tin echo, but it is her piano that reaches out for the final blow. It is a powerful closing of someone that will not be contained, like you can literally picture people dragging her away from the microphone as the instruments continue to play through some magical telekinetic powers.
And the album gets numerous peaks like this, aided the clever layout. Instead of 18 songs straight through, we get three sets of six songs. Factor in the vinyl release, and you see it is really collections of three song sets. And the album plays on this. Often time the middle song of a side is one of the more Ys-y, experimental numbers. But even in these songs, “Have One On Me”, “No Provenance”, “Kingfisher”, and “Esme”, there is more forward momentum than ever appeared on Ys. Even if you don’t know where a song is going, there is a definite sense of direction, rather than the boat-lost-at-sea feeling of Ys. Not necessarily better, but different and focused.
Then there is the surgical precision of the accompaniment. “Baby Birch”, at nearly ten minutes in length, shows the power of well-placed nuances. The song begins with 3+ minutes of just Newsom and harp, but boils slowly through one false build, that by the time you get to the tempo increase, the gentle, distorted guitar, the drum rattles, and the hand claps, you know something big is coming. And it does. Newsom knows how to build tension and makes the listener wonder how many people can build tension for these song lengths and actually deliver a pay-off? Expert arrangements also surface with the horns of “You and Me, Bess” and the mandolin of “Ribbon Bows”, proving that though Newsom is fine as a solo singer and musician, careful instrumentation can truly add a dynamic and rewarding element to her music.
Lyrically, I have never been as interested an analyzing her complete songs as much as I cling to certain phrases or lines. I can’t count the times that I have pondered “there are some mornings when the sky looks like a road” in the cool mornings of Southern California. Clocking in at over two hours and featuring Newsom’s voice nearly the whole time, there are plenty of lines to dwell upon, enough that an annotated Have One On Me may be required to truly appreciate the album. “Pull over and hold me until I can’t remember my own name” is the one that is killing me as I write this review. Tomorrow I’m sure it will be a different one.
And I could literally go on and on. The melodies, rooted in folk and gospel, are the melodies you have heard in old movies, in a small town’s portable radios, on you father’s old records. I am not enough of a music historian to know where all her reference points are, but the genre demands a playing with the past and Newsom does a great job at making the listener feel at home within it. Her language is also rooted in forgotten times, but unlike a Colin Meloy, who you can always tell is evoking a certain time or place based on careful research, it feels like Newsom has indeed lived for 500 years and using dated language comes as natural for her as breathing. Even the humor she has shown through her album promotion (not to mention her appearance in MGMT’s “Kids” video) shines at times, at least I like to think it does when she stars crowing like a bird near the end of “In California”.
So grades like 5/5 or A+ are not something that come easily from me (this is the first time ever), but I think records like Have One On Me are why perfect scores exist. I may not love each song equally, but this ambitious album succeeds on every level. It will be nearly impossible for Newsom to ever top this, but as her resume of work shows, if anyone can do it, she can. My only regret is that my words cannot do this piece of art justice, so get it and treasure it, because we will be lucky to get anything else this good for a long while.