Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Have One on Me - Joanna Newsom

Against my better judgment, I'm going to try to review Joanna Newsom's stunning 3xLP, Have One on Me, after only spending a few days with it. Be forewarned, I don't intend to offer a final conclusion on the album's quality. While I intend to discuss some of its songs, I just don't feel as if I'm deep enough into this album to really read it well. And who can blame me, right? Newsom's latest is over two hours of music spread across three CD's or LP's. That's a lot to take in. If anything, my early reaction to Have One on Me is one of awe. As I listen, I don't hear anything I dislike, and everything seems to fit together, but I feel lost in the album's epic scope. I want to feel as if I can enter into this album and be familiar with it, but that will take some time. My suggestion to you, the listener who goes out and buys a copy of Have One on Me? Listen to it once or twice all the way through, then spend time with each individual disc. Eventually the album will begin to feel familiar.

Of course, the biggest question everyone is asking about Newsom's latest is, "is it worth it?" This is a valid question to ask. Three discs of material is a huge commitment for an audience. The question's answer is simple and to the point: yes. Have One on Me is worth every minute. Early interactions with the album might find listeners longing for the more accessible songs of The Milk-Eyed Mender or the grandiose, epic sweep of Y's, but Newsom has moved beyond both. The new songs are nuanced and complex, less whimsical than Newsom's previous work, but more heartfelt. And while the arrangements aren't as big as Van Dyke Parks's work on Y's, they are rich and subtle, full of motion and surprise. The title track is a constantly evolving tapestry of musical textures, incorporating recorders, banjo, and mandolin. "Baby Birch" introduces a bit of distorted electric guitar into the mix, giving the song a slightly ragged feel. "Good Intentions Paving Company," is driven by pianos, but builds with a pseudo-gospel choir and trombone, elevating the song into the most soulful moment of Newsom's entire catalog. In general, Newsom's use of piano across a handful of Have One on Me's tracks adds a fresh warmth to her songs--"Soft as Chalk," almost sounds jazzy at times and "Occident" is elegant and gloomy. Beyond this new sonic territory, what keeps the album from feeling overblown is what has always made Newsom's work exciting, her complete dedication to sincerity. There isn't a whiff of hipster irony anywhere among Have One on Me's eighteen tracks. Newsom's vision remains pure, and that, above all else, is how she is able to release over two hours of music, all of it engaging.

The album's one fault, at the moment, is that it leans heavily toward mid-tempo harp pieces. At times, the album feels a bit homogeneous. I'm not willing to offer this as a definitive critique yet, however, as "In California," and "No Provenance" have already transformed from "mid-tempo harp songs" to gorgeous ballads, overflowing with artistry and restrained emotion. The keys to these songs are Newsom's matured songwriting, melodic sense and voice. While the songs on Have One on Me are still uniquely Newsom's, it's not difficult to imagine her listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush while writing this album. "In California" finds both influences combined to stunning effect--the song's warm melodies sound like a second cousin to Mitchell's, while the climactic outburst at the song's climax is as dramatic as anything in Bush's catalog.

It's still too soon to really read Have One on Me as any kind of unified text, but that's okay. I, for one, am looking forward to spending some quality time with this album and really getting to know it the way it demands to be known. The task may seem daunting, but the more I ease into the songs, the more impossible an accomplishment Have One on Me sounds like. While I'm not willing to make such a statement yet, Newsom's new album could find itself alongside The Magnetic Fields's 69 Love Songs as the rare triple album that works on every level. Only time will tell, but just the fact that anyone at all is willing to dedicate that sort of time is a pretty good indicator that Have One on Me is a truly special album.

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