So, Joanna Newsom’s third LP Have One On Me is attracting quite a bit of attention in the music press and rightly so.
After the five-song, 55-minute suite Ys, with its ostentatious arrangements and Newsom’s “Lisa Simpson and old lady in a blender” voice both enthralled and turned off listeners in apparently equal measure (although those who recognised its brilliance can wax lyrical about it for aeons), you’d be forgiven for expecting her to pare things down a little.
NO. Newsom returns with an album of three discs, 18 songs in all, most of them running to around seven minutes, and the whole thing lasting for some two whole hours. Ys haters, get that pillow ready, because you’ll be wanting to scream into it right about now.
But really, Have One On Me is a pretty sublime piece of work. Even the sceptics of old seem to have been converted by this one; it’s more palatable, dare I say more accessible, although not really. It’s not as if she’s doing easygoing three-minute pop nuggets. No, something like “Have One On Me” is like neo-Dylan in its lyrical scope, and musically it’s all over the place over the course of 11 minutes. It might be that the swirling orchestral string arrangements of Ys have been stripped away in favour of more naturalistic arrangements.
Newsom’s harp is prevalent throughout, but so too is the piano – and she has a soulful, gospel way around a piano melody that recalls such luminaries as Laura Nyro and Judee Sill, especially on something like the ’70s throwback “Good Intentions Paving Company,” an insane but wonderful country/road/love song. The multi-tracked harmonies are hilarious, and pure Joni Mitchell, and it’s this witty humour that makes the album such a joy. When things get bleak or dark, there’s always a little levity around the corner.
The highlights are too numerous to mention, and since this record is still only a couple of weeks out, it’s probably wiser to wait a little before making sweeping judgements. But you can’t pretend that this is not a great record in its vision and ambition and scope and diversity… I don’t like the way an artist’s vision and ambition is often interpreted as self-indulgence; sure, some of the more obscure songs here are perhaps a little indulgent, but if Newsom didn’t get to indulge then why bother making a record at all? By indulging, she’s created a masterpiece.
With this record, Newsom is starting to really join the ranks of the great singer-songwriters. It’s exciting to think where she’ll go next.
Below is Joanna performing a wonderful, rhythmic-shifting, Nyro-esque “Soft As Chalk” on Jimmy Fallon’s U.S. TV show on March 5, 2010