As good as a nice cup of tea, and a sit down.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

(Pssst: if this makes you fall asleep in the middle, the abridged version for Shut can be found here.)

2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender introduced the world to an awkward if determined songwriter. Joanna Newsom dressed like a sorcerer’s apprentice, used words that hadn’t been in common parlance in 200 years – but you certainly couldn’t forget her, or the fairytale narratives she delivered in her high, childlike voice.
Her struggles on The Milk-Eyed Mender to conquer her complex timings, vocals and melodies were audible. Yet her overarching visions were so unique, that in hindsight, her debut foretold the stellar turn she took on Ys.
Orchestral arrangements from Van Dyke Parks made her meandering tales soar with movement, and 2006’s bold concept album reaped the praise it deserved. Her improved vocal style and her dexterity on the harp now formidable, it seemed Newsom was less awkward, more capable of self-expression.
But for the listeners who come on board with the release Have One On Me, a record which completely belies her elbow grease, it will seem like she has sprung up the finished article. On the surface at least, Have One On Me is a record of startling serenity and composure. Now in possession of a beautifully mature vocal range worthy of the Kate Bush comparisons, Newsom’s occasional squeaks are a distant memory.
Like Ys, Have One on Me maybe considered a ‘bold’ record, but here the boldness lies its vastness. 18 tracks, over two hours of music to plough through. It’s to be digested slowly, and considered as carefully as it is delivered by our narrator.
The most striking thing about this record is its laissez-faire attitude. Both lyrically and musically, Newsom’s rigid uprightness has fallen away. The influence of many different musical styles can be found within Have One on Me, and the touches of blues, bluegrass and country here and there remind you of the presence of producer/arranger/tour mate Ryan Francesconi.
Her lyrics, of course, have always taken centre stage. Though she loosens her knotty, archaic prose, it is Newsom’s strong sense of narrative still pervades. Beginning with the long and winding ‘Easy,’ we are presented with the image of a contented couple; ‘my man and me.’ When the final curtain comes, 2 hours later, it’s succeeded by the imagery in the bluesy, bittersweet ‘Does Not Suffice,’ where Newsom packs up her ‘pretty dresses and high heels’ and contemplates her exit.
It’s a simple enough concept and one explored since time immemorial. But the surprising thing is that there’s very little to be decoded in Newsom’s language. Some of the lyrics from songs such as ‘Jack Rabbits,’ and ‘Autumn’ are simple to the point of exposure, without the safe obscurity of fairytale characters. You have to admire her frankness. Bob Dylan famously refuted ‘Blood on the Tracks’ as relevant to his divorce, and when looking back on the pain and anger that spills from the record, you can see why. This album could have been bitter catharsis, but it’s not. Her voice her music, her lyrics are warm and generous - even the title wishes you well.
Many will still decry her inaccessibility and to their credit, it is a record which demands your time and concentration. Assimilating to the down tempo, lengthy form is challenging at first; it’s hard to get a foothold anywhere. But once you find your way ‘in’, you will find a record as rich in reward as any ever you have ever treasured, or are likely to again.
There was a great deal of expectation weighted upon Have One on Me, and we know Joanna Newsom is an artist who thrives on reinvention. Knowing that no one can predict the direction of her next about-face is thrilling enough, but seeing her exceptional talent expand further, with seemingly no end to it in sight, is best of all.

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