Album Review: Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

[Drag City; 2010]

Anyone with a keen and inquisitive eye may well notice a distinct similarity that all of Joanna Newsom’s albums have: the cover art. All have her surrounded by various objects. On The Milk-Eyed Mender, she gazes at the patchwork quilt that she’s the centre of, with unicorns, cobwebs, planes and birds surrounding her. The bright sunny disposition of the cover art matches the uplifting exterior the music has, retaining pop structures and sensibilities all while being centred on an instrument that was then (and in some respects still is) alien to us: the harp. Ys on the other hand seemed more refined with its image. On it is a brilliant and articulate painting by Benjamin Vierling that has Newsom sitting, holding a sickle and a moth while in the presence of a bird at an open window looking out onto a magical landscape. On her new album, Have One On Me, she lays on a couch in a glamorised setting with peacock feathers, exquisite lamps and animal statues around her. All these items on these covers have their obvious symbolic connotations but as Newsom pointed out in an interview, these items are also not as objective as they may appear.

Ys was described as biographical record, describing and dictating a year in her life, as opposed to being the concept record many think of it as. It was full of themes and symbols beyond just the cover art, but despite the original meaning of Ys, as the sunken city built off the coast of Brittany in France, Newsom didn’t use it in the way most other artist might well have. There was a basis for its use because of the Atlantis-style story, but again she explains that the reason was personal to her; the importance lay in how she encountered the tale within her own life and how that relates to the subsequent subject matter on the record (and once again driving away the idea of concept and pushing for the personal instead). But she also mentions she chose the title Ys because of the sound of the word, describing it as “violent and cryptic” and “daunting.” Again, it would only be the selected few who would perhaps pick up on something like this and even go one step more in appreciating it for this reason.

But when you pair this piece of album trivia with the music itself, it makes perfect sense. Newsom’s work is one that is fine tuned and highly nuanced. The way she lifts and drops her voice in a split second makes it seem at time like there is more than one person singing the vocals. But what was once a disconcerting chirp-like quality she had in her range has now become warmed to not just from the elapsing of time, but also of how she’s proved herself to be able to use her great voice to the best of its abilities. If, though, there still happen to be doubters about her ability as a singer, as a composer and as a musician, then Have One On Me should suppress any urge to speak out against her.

There is an invariable similarity between Have One On Me and Ys, as expected. The orchestral arrangements are still present – still articulate and engrossing in the way they go from the subtle and slight to the brash and fuller sound. One cannot deny that Ys took time and patience to appreciate, to be able to understand and hear every flourish. But in being this way it felt a little overwhelming at times, like you as the listener had begun a trek into something private, like reading the full contents of a whole stack of diaries left open in a bedroom. Again, though, that’s the personal and biographic side shining through and as such, an inevitable consequence. But on Have One On Me, the songs expel a different kind of warmth. The instrumentation is still complex and precise but it’s paired with compositions that are easy to fall into at any point. I might even come close to saying that Newsom has created her most accessible album yet.

Though you’d be right to point out that it’s not exactly valid to say Ys is overwhelming and uninviting when Have One On Me is a whole two discs more and runs over double the length. And I cannot deny that upon hearing this I was a little startled and apprehensive. Three discs and over two hours of music is an exceptional amount for one artist to put out in one go and to present to the listener as one solid piece. However, I wonder every time I listen as to how I should take this album in. Because it’s separated into three segments I think about taking each disc on its own. But as I get to the end of the first or second CD, I feel inclined to let it go and continue to the next one. It’s all there as one piece, so why not thus take it this way? And when I do, the result is in no way bad. In fact, one finishes the album feeling they shouldn’t have been able to sit and listen to it all that easily. But as subjective as this opinion may be to those with varying attention spans and those who can only take in so much Joanna Newsom at one time, I find it inviting and exciting to listen to it all in one go. I reach the end of the record feeling like I’ve accomplished something but also given the record the best consideration I can. I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite the convoluted experience it might well come across as, doing it all in one go feels proper.

This might well be due to the range Newsom offers across the 18 tracks here. With its stately medieval style, epic penultimate track “Kingfisher” mirrors the occasional quirky orchestration on Ys. But when Newsom sits down at the piano and bowls the listeners over with tracks like saloon-worthy (I mean that as a compliment) “Soft As Chalk” or the pleasingly wavering “Good Intentions Paving Company,” you hear tracks that sound like they have followed on the heels of The Milk-Eyed Mender instead of Ys. She finds the space in between catchy, original and inviting and presents it in a sublime way. At some of the best moments her songs sounds like she’s singing old folk tunes that have been around for centuries. And even though the vocal melody of “Baby Birch” recalls that of “Amazing Grace,” she makes it her own allowing you to ignore any thoughts of plagiarising.

It might well read, then, that the expected has been done and Newsom has gone for the safe middle ground, offering something for everyone like Hail to the Thief did for Radiohead fans. And this is the case, but it’s pulled off with such a glorious audacity you barely notice this but if you do pick up on it in this way, you hardly feel inclined to degrade the album for it but rather compliment it on its variety.

But the length of many of the tracks here will thus have people pairing it with Ys once more (half the tracks run over seven minutes). But if Ys proved anything about her song writing ability, it was that she was able to keep a song going for as long as she wished. The melodies shift gradually at times and suddenly at others but it’s never easy to predict where the song is going. However, the success with length comes from her supreme lyrical content, as she once again weaves numerous tales that read like short stories when you sit down and examine them.

I can’t be sure how biographical this record is, but the content seems much more wide ranged and magical. There’s the tale of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Lola Montez told with a childish quality as she replaces the main characters with insects (a reference most likely to Montez’s “Spider Dance”) on the title track. On “Go Long” she recounts a dream she had that has her traveling through palaces and on elephants. At the end of the track she even seems to make a subtle reference to her Drag City label mate Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

The main theme though is, somewhat inevitably, love and all its consequences and so forth. But once again, she writes compelling narratives that sound equally personal to her and familiar to the listener. Her lyrics are full of many brilliant and quotable lines all while she picks up on the tiny forgotten moments such as the sound of a razor against the skin or the rattles of hangers in the closet. Back in 2004 I never thought she’d beat a line like “Your skin is something I stir into my tea” on “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie,” but she has once again overwhelmed my expectations.

As strong as the songs all are, they aren’t often instant in their rewards. You’ll pick up on a tiny motif or be melted when she calls you “a silly goose” before you realise their context. This is to be expected, though, and anyone who persevered with Ys will know to take their time with Have One On Me and let it unfold and unfurl in all directions. I’ve been listening avidly for some time now, but I still feel like I’ve barely penetrated many of the tracks here and only want to continue listening to find everything.

Even though any new listeners will find plenty to like and love here, the way it’s presented will be daunting. And that’s the only real failing here, in that it offers some of Newsom’s most accessible work but does so in a greatly off-putting way. But there won’t be many who will jump into a triple album and will instead venture into something else from her back catalogue. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. I might have been comparing this album with Ys a plentiful amount of times but that’s because it was such a devastatingly impressionable album. Have One On Me has the exact same quality, arguably to a great degree also, and when Newsom brings along her next album, rest assured I’ll be avidly comparing it this brilliant, grand and ambitious record.