Critical Voices: Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me

March 4, 2010

Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album, Ys, is one of my favorite releases of all-time. Working with super-producer Steve Albini and Van Dyke Parks of Pet Sounds fame, Ys was a lavish five-song suite as notable for its lyrical density as its sweeping orchestral crescendos. It may not have been very accessible, but at five songs in length, it was at least digestible. Newsom came off as a romantic classicist who plucked her harp strings carefully, a perfectionist who focused on making the suite work rather than overloading it with lesser compositions.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Newsom announced that her third LP, Have One on Me, would be a triple album, eighteen tracks and two hours long. But unsurprisingly, she pulls the whole thing off. Have One on Me is a sprawling masterpiece that explores the margins and empty space of her music in a way Ys didn’t, and though it might not reach the dazzling heights of that record, it’s full of gifts for anyone who puts in the effort to make it through its entire runtime.

The first disc is the strongest of the bunch. “’81,” a simple ballad that harks back to her earlier material, works beautifully in context here, sandwiched between two of Have One on Me’s best and most challenging tracks. The first, the title track, clocks in at 11 minutes and brings in some of the Appalachian arrangements of her most recent EP. It builds to its climax with a surprisingly active percussive section—with handclaps, bass drum kicks, and rim clicks giving the song an unusually propulsive flair. The next, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” is as close to lounge music as Newsom has ever come, with an extended horn solo and great jazz drumming. The disc’s sixth and final track, “Baby Birch,” is unabashedly traditional in its first half, then shifts abruptly as Newsom once again brings in a rhythmic build. Her voice throughout the track is more beautiful than ever before, and it’s hard to believe this is the same vocalist who shrieked her way through The Milk Eyed Mender in 2004.

The second disc is a more subdued affair, more interested in exploring the empty space between the delicate plucks of her harp. Its songs are less dense and its arcs less dramatic. Standout “In California” finds Newsom restraining herself in a melancholic ode to her home until a thundering bass drum arrives and she bizarrely approximates a bird’s call, before an abrupt climax and swift denouement. Like much of the material here, it can be tough to get a handle on. “Jackrabbits,” which follows, is easier to grasp. “You can take my hand in the darkness, darlin’, when you need a hand,” Newsom sings, relaxing us as the disc moves towards its conclusion.

“Esme,” the third disc’s obvious standout, continues Newsom’s newly direct lyricism. “If you are scared, if you are blue, I’ve prepared a small song for you,” she sings without a hint of pretentiousness. One critic was horrified that such heartfelt lyrics could be written for Newsom’s jokester beau, Andy Samberg of SNL and “Dick in a Box” fame. For me, though, that just adds to the intrigue of Have One on Me. For someone who has composed some of the most fantastic music of our time, we know desperately little about her private life. But here, as on Ys, Newsom creates a universe full of feeling and beauty, and that’s something very few artists have accomplished as well as she has.

Voice’s Choices: “81,” “In California,” “Esme”

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