Sunday, April 04, 2010
Is Joanna Newsom's latest album a two-hour love letter to Andy Samberg?
I had a feeling that Joanna Newsom was up to something big. However, I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that she would go and release a three disc album, two hour album. Joanna Newsom’s first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was a batch of exquisitely written and sometimes clumsily (though more often transcendently) performed pop songs, cute enough for the teenage girls to love and literate enough for bearded college students to write theses on. Two years later Joanna, made a big splash with her five song, nearly hour long Ys, on which her songs took on new orchestral arrangements, became mystical and weird in that “Incredible-String-Band-meets-Van-Dyke-Parks” (literally) way and taught listeners the differences amongst meteors, meteorites and meteoroids. She continues to evoke an abstract, ancient, American mythos on Have One On Me, an album that encompasses the styles of her first two records but also makes forays into some interesting new directions.
Have One On Me contains three six song discs, each that could stand alone on their own. The disc I listen to the most is the first. Although great, it contains impenetrably dense songs from start to finish. Have One On Me’s songs range from under two minutes in length to over eleven minutes. Disc one features “Good Intentions Paving Company,” and “Have One On Me,” perhaps the album’s best two tracks. Joanna Newsom composes great music, although for the first time, her writing is becoming a bit redundant.
If Ys sounded like it should have been recorded in a spectral barn in 1969, Have One On Me is pure 1971. There are progressions like the one at the end of “Jack Rabbits,” over which Newsom sings of “making love” that evoke melodies played on swampy, overdriven guitars. “Soft As Chalk” has a certain jaunt post-chorus—the part where she bellows “Lawlessness!”—that evokes a heavy, gothic country and western, before giving way to a lovely, sparse piano line straight out of the saloon. “Kingfisher” is probably objectively Newsom’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It lacks an guitar solo and any particularly great climax, but has melodic similarities to that epic rock standard, and prominently features presumably hobbit-manned pan flutes. “You and Me, Bess” is alternately jazzy and Beatles-esque and while not straying from what has become something of a stock Have One On Me chord change, features one of the albums most interestingly written vocal melodies.
Love pervades the album, which is funny considering that the lyrics are probably about the dude who wrote “Jizzed in My Pants.” The misty opening track, “Easy,” evokes a somewhat ghostly, desperate need for love. Against a string and flute arrangement that fits the song perfectly, Newsom croons as eerily as she ever has, “Speak my name, and I appear.” “Good Intentions Paving Company” is Joanna’s best “pop single” to date despite its seven minute length. Several Newsoms, multi-tracked a la “Peach, Plum, Pear,” sing loving melodies that warm the ears the way sunbeams are absorbed into skin. A groovy, syncopated percussion track invites the listener to bob the same way he would listening to yacht rock in his car on a June day. Joanna Newsom finds herself on a new journey, making good use of the hackneyed life-as-road metaphor. Her lyrics are smart and endearing. She remarks on the irony of asking a lover to open his heart to her when she “can’t even open a honey jar,” and just before a sweet flugelhorn jam, she sings: “I only want for you to pull over and hold me / Till I can’t remember my own name.”
“Have One On Me” starts out spare and contemplative but eventually builds and swells to strange character sketches. It includes a lot of spider imagery. The arrangement of the song is interesting because while the harp remains constant, other instruments come in and out like scenes of a slideshow. The song features fiddles, mandolins and other bluegrass instruments that ornament Newsom’s lyrics and harp-playing meticulously, but disappear as quickly as they come. The song peaks with a minor key bridge, highlighted with horns and strings and gives way to a coda of wordless, weaving vocalization that sticks to the mind like honey from a tightly sealed jar. At its best moments, Have One On Me proves Newsom still has great ideas, engaging melodies coiled up in her mind waiting to spring forward.
Not every song on Have One On Me is great. “Occidental” is a somber piano ballad whose familiar melody seems to have been lifted from somewhere else. Its lyrics are good, but it climaxes limply and doesn’t have any of the twists that refuse to allow longer songs, like the album’s title track, to drag. Songs like “No Provenance” are very pretty and pleasant to listen to but aren’t as engaging as Newsom’s older work. Most of the longer songs, the ones that continue on the same part for a long time, begin to drag. “Sawdust & Diamonds” from Ys spends most of its time on one, two-chord progression, but the song builds tension gorgeously and engagingly, which is unfortunately rare on Have One On Me. “Baby Birch” starts out dull and stays that way for about five full minutes. It sounds like a dustbowl era murder-ballad and oozes viscously until its stripped down arrangement finally begins to blossom into something equally somber but sublime. “Baby Birch” isn’t a terrible song. It has nice guitar line when it hits its groove and its Asian-sounding coda is one of the album’s most memorable. It also probably features the album’s best percussion, think Paul McCartney’s drums at the end of “Dear Prudence,” but in slow motion and furious. It’s somewhat distressing to hear Joanna Newsom treading into Gillian Welch territory. Newsom taps into a certain weird American-ness, often. However, to hear her reduced to Americana would be depressing and almost does before the climax of this epic track.
The best slow song is “Going to California,” on which Newsom declares that her heart “became a drunken rut.” The pace is slow, but the writing (again fixated on the subject of love, this time from a melancholic perspective) is superior to many songs. She writes: “I wait all night, for you in California / Watching the fox pick off my goldfish / From their sorry, golden state / And I am no longer / Afraid of anything / Save the life that, here, awaits.” The orchestral swell of its climax and almost raucous shouts of “Caw, caw, caw” are weird and cathartic in a way that is distinctly Newsom’s own. A great line that pops up on one of the more lackluster songs is on “Ribbon Bows.” The line goes: “Sweet appraising eye of the dog / Blink once if God / Blink twice if no God.”
I haven’t penetrated to the very core of Have One On Me and would probably have written a much more in depth review if I had a year to write it. However, we all know about the importance of Kairos, and I’ve already pushed this back a bit. Ultimately Have One On Me is a good album with some fantastic songs. Alas, it falls prey to the trappings of being two hours and eighteen tracks long. It is hard to get through in one sitting because its tracks are pretty similar and very long, although I imagine it would score a nice night house-sitting with a lover and a bottle of wine. Songs like “Go Long” are good but almost indistinguishable at times from other songs on the album. Its highs are very high, but in the end, Have One On Me held itself back as a result of its excess.
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