Joanna Newsom’s latest is ‘One’ to be reckoned with
Four years ago, in a duet with Smog’s Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom sang “I love you truly, or I love no one.” Curious, how in a career seemingly ridden with fantasy allusions and eccentricity, the conclusion to one of her greatest songs was something as relatable and emotional as that.
With her latest release, “Have One on Me,” Joanna Newsom has gone one step farther. She has eliminated such allusions almost entirely from her songwriting. She has assumed an almost entirely personal style. A style which, while sometimes pulling from recognizable sources, never feels like anything other than Joanna Newsom fully-actualized.
One accusation that has been lobbied against the release is its lengthy content. This is understandable, due to the fact that she pulled no punches for “Have One on Me.” The music on this album covers four LPs, and a full listen takes 124 minutes. Only three of the album’s 18 songs are under five minutes, and most are over seven. Joanna’s frequently meandering – but never dragging – tempos mean the listener truly experiences every moment.
For the most part, we are in lyrically dense territory. As long-time listeners already know, half of Newsom’s appeal lies there. But for the first time on a large scale, listeners are almost entirely meant to be emotionally engaged with the lyrics, rather than admiring them from afar. With her new musical variation, Newsom has not explicitly compromised her sound – another accusation which could easily be used against her.
Instead, she has given herself a larger canvas for her expression. There are road songs, Gershwin tributes, even an almost Carole King-ish potential single. She excels at every genre. Her tales of identity confusion, daddy-long legs and lost love are worlds unto themselves.
Consequently, this could be read as grand statements, easily leading one to dismiss these currents in Newsom’s new work for several flaws. However wonderful it may be, self-indulgence is self-indulgence. And, on first listen, certain songs feel like filler. The third disc in particular almost seems to blend together. But additional listening eventually comes to reveal certain charms- and sometimes peaks- no matter what the song may be.
The album’s expansive quality allows for fascinating musical twists at every point. “Baby Birch” is basically a cowboy ballad performed solo on the harp. Five minutes in, a rather dissonant electric guitar enters the mix. Rather than acting as an imposition, it gives the song an almost disturbing element – it jars slightly, but there’s not even a question about it working. The same guitar noise returns on the closer, “Does Not Suffice,” where its effect is almost tear-inducing.
Every song contains its own moment to treasure. The gorgeous tale in “In California” states at one point that “sometimes I can almost feel the power.” The evidence of this power can be heard in Newsom’s extended vocal and musical breakdown, during which she imitates a cuckoo clock. And yet, in the context of the song, the technique could not be any other way.
One can hope that others will listen to this album. Joanna Newsom may not have revolutionized music with “Have One on Me,” and she probably won’t inspire legions of imitators, but she has released an incredible work, which deserves to be listened to for years to come.
Mark Schiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.