Joanna Newsom’s always been a storyteller. On 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender the tales were richly and eccentrically meandering, even if the songs have retrospectively proven to be the most concise and straightforward in a catalog that includes 2006’s Van Dyke Parks orchestral Ys and now her most ambitious collection Have One On Me. Ambitious because her growth as a vocalist and songwriter is tangible. There was a time when most reviewers focused on Newsom’s voice, somehow forgetting all those beautiful words: “Your skin is something that I stir into my tea,” “There are some mornings/ When the sky looks like a road,” “Never get so attached to a poem, you forget truth that lacks lyricism,” etc. With Have One On Me it’s okay if you get attached to the poetry of both the lyrics and the structures wrapping around them: Across these 18 songs, Newsom weaves and wanders gorgeously. As on Ys she sets big scenes, but she also digs into intimacies that feel rawer and more real than anything she’s done previously.
Before you even get going on the songs and their tales, the production (Newsom produced; Jim O’Rourke mixed six songs, Noah Gorgeson the others) shows up and stands out: It’s lush but straightforward, crystalline but mysterious. Accents are tasteful. A momentary cacophony adds the emphasis it was sent there to achieve. That, and Newsom has more control and depth to that divisive voice. If you weren’t a fan of how she used it in the past, you’ll find some softer moments here, but longtime fans shouldn’t worry about any sort of transformation into straightforward coffee-shop folkiness: Newsom remains fearless.
When we heard the Edenic folks of “81,” the pastoral and jazzy “Good Intentions Paving Company” outing, and the gorgeous 9-minute madrigal/short story “Kingfisher,” it seemed like we were getting a good idea of Have One On Me’s arc, but you really do need the thing in its entirety. The 11-minute title track conjures 19th Century Irish-born dancer/actress/courtesan Lola Montez and her “famous spider dance.” “Baby Birch” is a heartbreaking look at the eponymous lost child: “I wish we could take every path. / I could spend a hundred years adoring you. / Yes, I wish we could take every path, / because you know I hated to close the door on you.” The way it builds lyrically (characters, real and fantastical and stock enter the picture) and musically (the feedback, handclaps, percussion, the final Asian-style musical coda) is contained but dramatic and playful. The almost 10-minute song’s followed by the brief, less than two-minute “On A Good Day,” which seems to extend the same theme via a concise vignette: “I saw life and I called it mine / I saw it drawn so sweet and fine / And I had begun to fill in all the lines / Right down to what we’d name her.” Another standout “In California” looks at a different kind of loss (leaving home and a loved one), but also a sense of recovery and discovery. “Jackrabbits” finds a character, tired of being drunk “my face cracked like a joke,” swimming and stumbling away from and then back into love: “It can change in shape or form, but never change inside.” The spare, piano-lined closer “Does Not Suffice” also finds her moving on, packing up her “pretty dresses, “sparkling shoes,” cashmere, tweed, and “everything that could remind you of how easy I was not.” After she goes, though, she can’t stop imagining what his life is like without her: “The tangled hangers swaying in the closet / Unburdened hooks and empty drawers / And everywhere I tried to love you is yours again and only yours.” (The level of detail is reminiscent of Smog’s “New Friend.”) The track ends with her bouncy and then more haunting “la la la”s and then an ominous build of strings, feedback, and a patch of synth drone, drum menace. So, yeah, you want to go back to the opener “Easy” and figure out the circle that brought on the closing storm.
When people say you need time with an album, they usually mean because it’s a “grower,” but we need more time with Have One On Me because it’s too rich to breeze through. And it’s a pleasure to unpack it. There’s so much heartache and beautiful, smart imagery — so consider the Evaluation gladly on-going. When not mentioning the Clash’s Sandinista, reviewers will undoubtedly compare Have One On Me to books: The Washington Post has already offered Ulysses, though this feels more like the mirrors and secret love letters of Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada drenched in the sweat of William Faulkner … not Joyce’s Dublin. You’ll also undoubtedly hear Joni Mitchell, too. With an album like this, though, it makes more sense to start comparing Newsom to herself: Give a close listening to “Easy” through “Does Not Suffice” and then plop on another album immediately after … it’s hard for non-Newsom to sound flimsy beside this monolith. Sure, long records are nothing new, but long records that maintain a rigorous level of detail and quality from start to finish are much rarer. To go back to the book thing: William H. Gass has said you can tell the strength of a book if you open it to page 99 and the writing is just as solid as it was in the first pages. Do that here … test passed.
If you haven’t heard it yet, you can stream Have One On Me at NPR. Then go out and buy it: This is a record you’ll want to own in physical form.
Have One On Me is out today via Drag City.