Joanna Newsom kept quite a low profile after her enchanting masterpiece Ys was released in 2006. Fans of the Bay Area native and harp virtuoso began to see her popping up in fashion spreads (looking divine, I might add) and on the arm of SNL comedian Andy Samberg, but saw no movement on the home front: her anachronistic brand of quirky, literary, and lush music. Had she forsaken her musical ingenuity for a life of couture and comedy?
Drag City, her record label, answered this question with a resounding no in January 2010 with the release of a new single ("'81") and the news of a triple album (!!!) to be released the following month. True to her unconventional nature, Newsom allowed the masses to think she had forsaken her craft while busy tinkering away at eighteen brand new songs that pack a punch mighty enough to knock even a jaded listener unconscious. Well worth the agonizing wait, Have One On Me will make you see stars.
Joanna Newsom's music isn't exactly accessible. Her unusual vocal gymnastics and dense, winding narratives on previous albums often split listeners into two camps: the perplexed and the bewitched. There are a few reasons why some people fall into the first set, whether it is a short-attention span, a resistance to aural adventure, or just bad taste. But, with this new album, there is hope for them yet!
Although Have One on Me sticks to the lengthy format with a running time of just over two hours, Joanna Newsom plays around with simpler song formulas and has moved away from rapid-fire syllabic assaults for a more stripped and soulful sound. She has also scaled back some of her vocal eccentricities. The evolution of her chirpy voice into a deepened, more controlled instrument is partly due to a better understanding of how to best utilize her talent, but also as a direct result of a bout with nodes on her vocal chords that left her unable to speak and even cry for months. Amazingly, Joanna's one-of-a-kind voice has returned to its former glory and then some (thank the Muses!).
Not only are Newsom's vocals more assured and clearer than ever before, her lyrics and storytelling abilities are also reaching new heights. On the opener, "Easy," Joanna romanticizes a menacing historical figure: "Like a Bloody Mary seen in the mirror, speak my name and I appear." The title track shares some of this narrative color: headless guards, whispering Jesuits, and the spider dance of 19th century dancer/courtesan Lola Montez (the woman who allegedly inspired the phrase "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets"). On other songs, a battle between St. George and the dragon breaks out, a goose cusses over her eggs, Mother Nature "doles out hurt like a puking bird," a face cracks like a joke, and "a terrible room [is] gilded with the gold teeth of the women who loved you." Joanna has the uncanny ability of twisting words into new positions and conjuring forgotten legends, not to mention constructing a bad ass simile.
While the subject matter of Ys was fantastically varied, from a song that remarks on the differences between meteors, meteorites, and meteoroids to another about a despot monkey who abuses a bear called Ursula, Have One on Me sticks to a more common thread. Each of the eighteen songs deals with the many faces of love, warts and all.
Love with a sense of humor:
"And I regret how I said to you
'Honey, just open your heart'
when I've got trouble
even opening a honey jar."
"I only want you to pull over and hold me
'til I can't remember my own name."
Red hot love:
"You burned me like a barn.
I burned safe and warm in your arms."
Love of California:
"When you come and see me
you cross the border of my heart."
And love gone extinct:
"It does not suffice
to merely lie beside each other,
as those who love each other do."
Joanna has created a soundtrack for every phase of a relationship: the desire, the chase, the catch, and the release. And somehow, she accomplishes this without repeating a single note from the boundless history of love songs past. Love has been written to death for centuries and she's managed to drag it from its deep grave.
Despite being preoccupied with affairs of the heart, Newsom is unafraid to confront darker terrain. On "Baby Birch," she sings: "I will never know you...I hated to close the door on you...Be at peace, Baby Birch. Be gone." The lament over a lost child continues on "On A Good Day:" "I saw a life and I called it mine. I saw it, drawn so sweet and fine and I had begun to fill in all the lines, right down to what we'd name her." Equally gut-wrenching is the album's final number "Does Not Suffice," which chronicles packing away feminine regalia (sparkling rings, gilded buttons, coats of boucle, jacquard and cashmere) and moving out of an ex-lover's space. "The tap of hangers, swaying in the closet, unburdened hooks and empty drawers, and everywhere I tried to love you is yours again, and only yours." Seeing those stars yet?
A simple review such as this can't come close to capturing the sound and sway of Have One on Me. You must find out what's buried there for yourself. My advice for your journey through these two hours of challenging music is:
a.) headphones are a must.
b.) digest in increments, one six-song LP at a time.
c.) don't expect to instantly love every number.
Joanna Newsom's songs are organisms unto themselves, breathing worlds with their own rules, little dramas, and amatory struggles. They deserve adequate time and patience to reveal themselves; their mysteries unveiling only when you're ready for them.
Have One on Me is out now. You'll buy it, if you know what's good for you.