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Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

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Artist: Joanna Newsom

Album: Have One On Me

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 23, 2010

It’s frustrating putting out a record these days — the artist puts in a ton of effort writing the music and then spending hours in the studio trying to make that drum sound perfect and then mixing the thing and making sure the mastering and the art are done right. And then he or she gets the thing out there and gets a handful of reviews that mostly aim to pigeonhole it.

This is no sob story for Joanna Newsom, who is plenty famous and who, I’m sure, gets as much recognition as she can handle. At the same time, though, the most important feature of her music is that, love it or hate it, it gives so much — so much ambition, so many substantive ideas — that tossing a few hundred words at it, particularly when Drag City didn’t even make streams of the album available to reviewers until a week before the album’s release, just seems tawdry. This record is too big for that.

Have One On Me often feels like an extended (very extended, at three discs and over two hours) version of her 2007 And the Ys Street Band EP — Newsom herself is front and center, particularly on the third disc, but there’s also often a band involved, sometimes hinting at R&B or bluegrass in a way that’s pretty far removed from the harp-based accompaniments of her earlier records (though Have One On Me features plenty of harp, too).

The Van Dyke Parks orchestrations that darted around Newsom on her previous full-length, Ys, are (mostly) gone, but the songs are often built similarly — each line seems to generate momentum from the last, creating the impression that her songs are more complex than they actually are. The average track is a bit shorter, and a handful even run under five minutes, but there’s still the sense that the overall shapes of her songs have more to do with the way her thoughts unfold than with preconceived ideas about the way a song should be structured.

Newsom has been criticized for manufacturing an “outsider” quality in her work, and while I can understand that criticism regarding her Milk-Eyed Mender debut (with its simpler songs, rough-and-ready recording, Newsom’s strangled jackdaw of a singing voice, and the use of an esoteric instrument like the harp as the main accompaniment), it doesn’t make sense with regard to Ys, and it doesn’t make any sense now.

First, and most obviously, Newsom’s singing, intensely strident on her first album, got a lot more conventional, even if it still doesn’t please everyone. And beyond that, there’s nothing about Have One On Me that sounds like it’s trying to be outsider-y — the performances are professional, and many of the slightly campy medievalisms and arcane references on her first two records are gone.

There are still a million words, and they still go to strange, fanciful places (a woman runs to her lover “like a brace of jackrabbits with their necks all broke”; one song later, she dreams of being carried to him on a palanquin made of beautiful corpses). But Newsom has greatly reduced the distance the listener must swim to get from the surface of what she’s saying to the raw human stuff underneath. Have One On Me features some of her most sentimental lines, usually placed so perfectly that I don’t have an ounce of skepticism about them. The way “I don’t belong to anyone / My heart is heavy as an oil drum” appears along with weeping strings — I should feel like I’m being manipulated, but I don’t. Or how “Hey, hey, hey, the end is near / On a good day you can see the end from here” sets up the line “On a good day you can feel my love for you”…well, it’s just really powerful.

At this point, though, these kinds of judgments only go so far, because so much about Newsom is so polarizing. Either you like it (the endlessly long songs; the wordplay; the crackling, quivering singing; the oversized ambition; the willingness to present herself and her art in ways that, as Rob Hatch-Miller pointed out, beg to be mocked) or you don’t. The way she’s sanded down her voice over time (mostly by singing differently, but also by adding reverb) may convert a few nonbelievers, but not many.

One reason Newsom inspires such intense reactions is because what she does is so difficult to categorize. If you know an album is, say, post-punk, or dubstep, it’s easy to judge by the standards of those genres, and therefore to keep at a safe distance. Try to label what Newsom does in a sentence or two, and you just tie yourself in knots (the “freak-folk” label isn’t really trendy anymore and doesn’t aptly describe what she’s done since her first album; “art-pop” is okay, except that Newsom doesn’t really make pop; her love of storytelling clearly has a lot to do with the Anglo-Appalachian ballad tradition, except she doesn’t adhere to that genre’s strophic forms, or plainspoken language, or much of anything else; etc.).

Have One On Me will do little to change all that, and so the only clear point of reference is her own previous work. Beyond that, though, it’s enough to say that it’s her, and if you loved Ys as much as this writer did, you’re probably going to love Have One On Me also.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Other Reviews of Joanna Newsom

The Milk-Eyed Mender


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