Album: JOANNA NEWSOM – Have One On Me (Drag City 2010)

When I first heard Ys I found it hard going. Only repeated plays opened it up, so when Have One On Me was announced as a two hour long triple album I have to admit I swallowed hard. How long was this going to take me to get my head around?

Whether it is much more accessible, or I’ve just adapted to her better, I don’t know, but swimming through these two hours proved effortless and a real joy to boot. The arrangements are (for the most part) less florid than the dense orchestrations that Van Dyke Parks brought to its predecessor, and also much more varied with many tracks swapping the harp for the piano as the lead instrument. Newsom’s voice, too, has lost many of its idiosyncrasies – the cackling witch-child of yore is almost absent, replaced by an expressive and versatile soprano. Sometimes she sounds a bit like Kate Bush, at others like Tori Amos, Melanie Safka or Joni Mitchell. Mostly she just sounds like Joanna Newsom – her voice rich and swooping one moment and an intimate whisper at others.

The album is split into three discs (both CD and vinyl) each with half a dozen songs. Unlike other large scale works (Tom Waits’ Orphans springs to mind) there is no separate theme to each, instead they work as three acts of a whole piece. Indeed, there is a journey being travelled here. More about that later.

Musically, selecting stand out tracks is difficult because so few don’t stand out! The arrangements go the florid to the spare and ghostly, delicate as a spider’s web. There are a number of melodies that are distinctly of the folk idiom, that sound like they’ve been passed down from generation to generation, and others that are almost impossibly complex. There are hints of Renaissance music (Kingfisher) and Chinese classical music (the final section of Baby Birch), but it never sounds like the work of a dilettante showboating. Every arrangement seems perfect for the song.

As you’d expect from Newsom, this is a lyrically poetic and dense album. Even the sub two minute On A Good Day has four verses! The words are extraordinarily descriptive and detailed, sometimes plain and direct and sometimes abstract. You don’t get verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures, but combinations of blank verse, complicated rhyme patterns and stanzas that are anything but regular in metre and length. This is truly poetry set to music instead of just songs with words, but through it all, there is a narrative thread, and it’s one that compares to Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece Blue. But where Joni’s history of a relationship has an almost diary like simplicity, Joanna’s is wrapped in thought and dream imagery. Joni’s is full of real people, places, conversations and events while Joanna’s is more internally focussed (but not in a narcissistic way). But both go from a stable contentment to a messy end. Easy opens “Easy, easy / My man and me / We could rest and remain here, easily“but by the end of Does Not Suffice (a postscript to the album’s brilliant centrepiece In California), there is a picture of an empty aftermath: “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.

Have One On Me is magnificent. Further listens promise only more riches to be revealed, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the lyrics yet.

Tracks
1.1 Easy 6:04
1.2 Have One On Me 11:02
1.3 ’81 3:52
1.4 Good Intentions Paving Company 7:02
1.5 No Provenance 6:25
1.6 Baby Birch 9:30
2.1 On A Good Day 1:49
2.2 You And Me, Bess 7:13
2.3 In California 8:42
2.4 Jackrabbits 4:23
2.5 Go Long 8:03
2.6 Occident 5:31
3.1 Soft As Chalk 6:29
3.2 Esme 7:56
3.3 Autumn 8:02
3.4 Ribbon Bows 6:11
3.5 Kingfisher 9:11
3.6 Does Not Suffice 6:45

Websites
www.dragcity.com/artists/joanna-newsom

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