Nobody was prepared for Have One On Me. Technically, yes, there was advanced notice. There were cartoon-strip clues and whisperings of a triple album and a graceful lead single. Eventually two more followed and, barely a month after the initial news broke, the massive album had arrived. Fans prepared themselves for a two-hour-long opus, a crash course in all things Joanna Newsom loves and hates and can’t stop thinking about. But nobody was really ready for it.
Not even critics at the time were ready. Only a select few received an advance stream, barely a week before the album’s release, to dive into Newsom’s intricate stories. Instead of being given a pair of tweezers to gently, one by one, pick apart the threads of the web Newsom spun in order to properly understand what to review, most were overwhelmed without any proper tools. There’s non-traditional instruments, emotional confessions, and a slew of discreet references amidst archaic verbiage. So really, it’s only now, a decade later, that it feels like Joanna Newsom’s third album can be properly looked at and evaluated — and even still, there’s so much left uncovered.
What was known right away were the basics: Have One On Me is a triple album of 18 songs split up equally into thirds. It’s produced by Newsom, mixed by Jim O’Rourke and Noah Gorgeson, and sees Ys Street Band leader Ryan Francesconi replacing Van Dyke Parks as the arranger. The latter signified a huge shift away from swelling strings towards playful instruments like Bulgarian tambura, oboe, tarhu, and even a kora. Newsom even traded her signature harp for a piano at times, infusing her classically informed style with a jolt of classic pop.
Francesconi combed direction from Newsom without over-prying, creating a musical world on the record that emphasized her storytelling, if not clarifying it. Newsom said his broad-to-detailed line of questioning helped her dictate how the arrangements should sound without her actually taking the title of arranger: a Bulgarian moment here, an Andean interlude there, references to Bartók or Liszt sprinkled throughout. Listening back, it’s clear the two play off one another well, adding an air of spontaneous creativity to an otherwise incredibly organized record. In fact, Newsom was so open-hearted in this period that she, the Spotify-hating puritan of the streaming era, let NPR host the album online for a short stretch.
Apart from its length, the most immediate takeaway and widely covered aspect of Have One On Me was the change in Newsom’s voice. In the spring of 2009, she developed vocal cord nodules and spent two months without speaking to prevent it from getting worse. Newsom compared its effect to muscle atrophy where the ascending strategy her brain employed to sing changed. She has mixed feelings about it, but most everyone else was thrilled. Instead of likening her voice to the unbearable shrillness of Lisa Simpson, critics now gave her universal accolades for showing a wider range, particularly in the lower register. Sure enough, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Newsom’s revamped singing. Consider “Kingfisher,” a melodramatic medieval dance where she shows off her control, guiding her voice through elongated coos and reveling in the progression of notes to form both smaller and longer mood arcs.
So why does Have One On Me remain the most difficult album in Newsom’s catalog to decipher? She sounds pointedly less fictional and more personal, but she argues that it’s only because these lyrics are less abstract in revealing herself. Namedrops or locations are usually the jumping-off point from which fans can break down the surrounding context. Here, they’re upfront references to 19th century Irish burlesque dancer Lola Montez or ceaseless descriptions of Nevada City, California, Newsom’s hometown and place of residence at the time. She goes beyond the framework of symbolic animals she used on Ys. (Though what’s seemingly her favorite totem of all, the goose, which regularly graces her albums as a symbol of motherly tendencies, is still here.)
The difference is that the emotions that go into detailing all of these things aren’t always related to the projected characters, and that’s where decoding the lyrics gets tougher. The general themes may seem obvious, like the difficulty of forgiving in “81,” until another allegory, like child loss, comes to mind. It’s hard to know which narrative is correct given the lyrics’ ability to shapeshift. Have One On Me is the one Newsom album that feels overwhelmingly emotional but intentionally guarded, like she lined up the pages of her diary and then took an eraser to key details, or agreed to go to therapy only if she could be hidden by a confessional box. This isn’t to say the album is purely autobiographical — that’s an unfair assumption, and one regularly shoved onto female musicians. It does mean that Newsom delivers these lines with a sense of confessionalism and uncertainty. So she buries her own anecdotes within tall tales like a re-telling of the infamous Blue Beard fable (“Go Long”) or when, in the novel Rookwood, a man is hung for stealing a horse (“You And Me, Bess”).
For a self-described “morbidly shy” person, there’s always going to be a sense of comfort and ease to creating art in a personal space. And for Newsom, there’s also a joy in sharing it publicly. “It’s very reassuring in a way to know that the elements I spent a long time embroidering into — or, in some cases, burying in — the lines will pretty much always get found by someone,” she told The Guardian a few years later. But Have One On Me is the one album whose subject matter she consistently dances around in interviews. It’s as if she wants to preserve a certain personal truth in the music, and it can only happen by keeping it private.
What Newsom does give away, she addresses up top via the record’s 11-minute title-track. There’s a certain rush awarded by placing the album’s central theme — how she diminishes herself through the act of constant giving — in the second song. Through the story of Montez ending an affair with King Ludwig I and then attempting to poison him, Newsom plants the seeds of a complicated relationship, one that grows in power and volume only to reveal a long-awaited moment of revenge-like indifference when her lover sends her away. (Like most passive-aggressive moments, there’s a high that comes from hearing her spit, “Don’t you worry for me.”) When she snaps, a moment Newsom intentionally planned with multiple minutes of backstory and instrumental trickery, it feels like a flood of happiness and relief, as if you personally have been holding back out of fear of damaging your reputation only to realize you’ll be just fine. Newsom ties the song up in a bow by cutting off the orchestration sharply and segueing into a beautiful harp coda mirroring the song’s opening. It’s a hell of a song, and one that always feels too short despite its double-digit runtime.
From there onwards, Have One On Me is full of songs like “Good Intentions Paving Company” or “Jackrabbits” where Newsom tries to articulate the highs and lows of love by sneaking in every apt descriptor that comes to mind. This wouldn’t be noteworthy if Newsom were an average songwriter. Instead, her vocabulary bank is more like an encyclopedic canyon, and her sense of recall is impossibly sharp. She built this songwriting process upon the type of imaginative writing that came naturally to her as a child, all the more encouraged by her parents with a game dubbed “poem races” — they wrote random words on slips of paper, stuck them to trees, and had their kids invent poems for each one on the spot.
Even her literary influences run the gamut, but rarely for the reasons assumed. She loves Nabokov for the complexity of his “sculpted sentences,” and she admires Hemingway not for his structural craft, but for the “purity of vision” in his stories. Newsom is a poet at heart and a wordsmith in execution; but with Have One On Me, she gets so caught up in grappling with the entanglements of love that her vocabulary doubles as a textural element. For the first time in her career, if you can’t keep up with the narrative, that’s okay — there’s still an emotional grain to the syllables and affixes that translate the underlying meaning.
Newsom is audibly suffering from heartbreak at large: the end of a relationship, a separation from the city she loves, and a growing distance between friendships. In late 2007, she and Bill Callahan separated, and by the following year she began dating her now-husband Andy Samberg. It’s tempting to theorize that she’s addressing the former in tracks like “Baby Birch” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” or her budding love for the latter elsewhere. But the “who” doesn’t matter here so much as the perpetually unanswered “why.” With each song, Newsom seems to be caught mid-reflection, stating, “This is the sort of relationship I’ve found myself in, and everything I felt within it.”
Come the album’s end, closer “Does Not Suffice” acts as a final dagger stabbed right through the heart. You can hear it break as she sits at the piano recalling the final moment of a faded relationship: “The tap of hangers, swaying in the closet/ Unburdened hooks and empty drawers/ And everywhere I tried to love you/ Is yours again/ And only yours.” And then, that refrain from “In California,” a song about longing for the stability of home, reappears. In the empty space of a romantic relationship, she feels the unbearable pining for the one place that always feels secure. What a bittersweet callback. I imagine it’s how a pet feels upon hearing their owner call their name — to the pet, it’s only a series of notes, accented or elongated, but it feels profoundly recognizable and comforting.
Since adding another album, Divers, to her catalog, it’s become clear by contrast that Have One On Me is Newsom’s most feminist record. Over the course of 18 songs, she’s reckoning with what it means to be patronized and used, to be cheated on and overlooked, to be overtly feminine and incredibly strong. Most of her allusions take the form of being a caretaker for all, particularly the moment when the decision to do so becomes an expectation. Hearing her wrestle with her own agency is deeply moving and occasionally draining because she doesn’t have the answers. She’s just building from one moment to the next trying to figure out why these things happen until a realization bursts through:
We are praying I am the one to save you/ But you don’t even own your own violence.
I am barely here/ But, like a Bloody Mary seen in the mirror/ Speak my name and I appear.
I’m your little life-giver/ I will give my life.
You give love a little shove and it becomes terror.
What a woman does is open doors/ And it is not a question of locking or unlocking.
Newsom chose to represent this through coy maximalism. The album cover may look like a painting, but it’s actually a photograph slightly out of focus. She dragged her actual belongings into a room and crammed as much into frame as possible: a taxidermy fawn, standalone bird wings, a velvet eye mask, spare skirts in shades of pink and purple. Working with iconography derived from Western Orientalist fantasies, Newsom chose cartoonish feminine signifiers to represent the Lacanian idea that “Woman is a symptom of man.” Then she sprawled across a couch in flapper garb for the shot, her smokey-eye stare daring you to maintain eye contact instead of taking in the leopard-print ottoman, the chinoiserie folding screens, the peacock whose tail is taller than Newsom herself. Photographed by Annabel Mehran in black-and-white and then hand-tinted with watercolors by artist Becca Mann, the image feels vibrantly retro, as if recalling a vivid dream.
Inside the box set, each vinyl is encased in a different black-and-white photograph sleeve of Newsom perched on the very edge of a vintage loveseat — when combined, they act as a flattened zoetrope of Newsom drawing her hair into a ponytail, her legs outstretched and back straightened like a natural-born model. According to Newsom, the whole visual establishes that she, as the narrator, is portraying the decadence, beauty, and corporeal desire of a character lost in “feminine self-diminishment.”
Written between 24 and 28, the album catches Newsom during a pivotal age range where, traditionally, your sense of self-worth, your passions, and the traits by which you define yourself come under scrutiny. She’s described these songs as being a serotonin- and adrenaline-filled experience, which translates well given there’s an urgency to define yourself and solve the problems that are holding you back. Perhaps this explains Newsom’s goal for the album’s three-disc structure to track “the morning, day, and night of a single 24 hours.” From the moment she wakes up in bed beside her lover to the finale where she gathers the last of her things from his room, Newsom has ordered these songs to tell distinct arcs about major life changes.
It’s a long album, but hearing it in one sitting is fulfilling for this very reason. Over the suggested day in her life, you hear an optimistic declaration that “kindness prevails!” in “Esme,” the vocal reverb adding worry to her voice in “Ribbon Bows,” the remarkable timing of her “coo coos” as “In California” strikes at the album’s exact one-hour mark like a grandfather clock, the timid strength of “Jackrabbits” as this album’s overlooked track, like “En Gallop” in The Milk-Eyed Mender. All of this makes the comparatively brief “On A Good Day” feel like a brush of wind — cooling, calming, restorative — where her harp skills shine. (If only she elongated that feeling by putting her Letterman solo in the studio version!)
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve listened to this album and how much I’m still discovering. On Newsom’s recent solo tour, she played four nights at Chicago’s Thalia Hall. What impressed me most was hearing songs that are burned into my brain in a new light. “Soft As Chalk” always felt a bit too loud to me for some reason — when my partner heard it for the first time, he asked what “the piano song that sounded like a Broadway musical” was, which, fair — but when hearing it on piano with nothing else behind her, it not only sounded more stark, but much sadder.
There’s one line there that, without fail, hits me differently every time: “Now I am calling in a sadness beyond anger and beyond fear: Who is there? Who’s there? And who is there?” She asks it in earnest, wholly unsure, and each repetition draws a subtle desperation from her voice. Have One On Me is a lot of things all at once — it’s clear Newsom wanted it to be so — but when viewed from a step back, the album sounds like an exercise in asking herself that very question in a mirror, face-to-face with a woman entering her late 20s seeking a better sense of self. All I can ever think is, “I hope she found an answer.”