There seems to me a critical space between the perception of Joanna Newsom and the actuality of what she produces, a space broad enough – and one that allows for such a huge sense of slippage – that all sorts of odd descriptions get bunged at her: musical genius, bourgeois fantasist, cutesy nonsense maker. It’s a space created by her image (self-cultivated or not), her precocity, and her style: that delivery that to many appears affected, worn. It’s also created by her talent – that thing you can’t fake. Yet it’s almost as if you have to earn the right to be accepted as odd and supernaturally talented – to be spoken of in the same breath as Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush – as if the contract is based on a system of trust. Well, Have One On Me isn’t exactly going to close that space any, as it’s as wildly ambitious and flighty as Ys and self-obsessed enough to convince the doubters. But having lived with it for a while now, it’s evidence enough for me that there’s enough going on here for a whole damn career, let alone a triple album.
Have One On Me covers six sides of vinyl and has a running time of just over two hours. Gone are the baroque, and at times invasive and sickly flourishes of Van Dyke Parks that featured on Ys, to be replaced by series of simple arrangements and augmentations from her long time sidekick and Ys Street Band Member Ryan Francsconi. Strings do feature regularly on the album, but take their place amongst an array of instruments including a Bulgarian tambura, a Gambian kora, harpsichord and trombone. There is also a good deal of piano, and of course Newsom’s signature polymetric solo harp compositions. And in many respects, it’s actually a fairly simple premise – the arrangements as vehicles for Newsom’s explorations of the themes she has worried at across her work to date: love and being unable to love, metamorphosis and transformation, and a simple urge to metaphorise her own solipsistic journey. (And let’s be clear, Newsom’s method is solipsistic; and despite the strange creatures she weaves into her songs – which at times reach a pitch worthy of Angela Carter – you sense this is all a form of Romantic self-exploration). Yet there is always an unorthodoxy about Newsom’s creations, a non-linear sense of narration and structure that gives the songs room to develop organically and on their own terms.
Though all this does beg the question of how Newsom writes, what her method is and how the songs come to be in their final form. On Ys, however embellished the actual process was, there was the sense of completion, that Newsom had obeyed some larger calling. Have One On Me doesn’t have that same sense of completion, at least not in the immediate sense. She has spoken of how she wanted it be in the vein of the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter albums of the early 1970s, full of that vaguely melancholic sun-dazed lope (hence the opening track, ‘Easy’ which, incidentally, with its haunted air and Robert Kirby strings is anything but easy) but instead the album became about unease (un-Ys?), the song forms and lyrical content betraying the superficial levity of the early tracks. Inevitably then, you’re drawn to examine the life, looking for clues as to why the lyrics dwell so heavily on her – or her characters’ inability – to feel, or at least to project their feelings outwards: ‘But I am still a coward…But sometimes I can almost feel the power’ from ‘In California’; ‘Honey, just open your heart/when I’ve got trouble/even opening a honey jar’ from ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’; ‘I’m telling you I can love you again/love you again’ from ‘Jackrabbits’ – and though there is often recourse to nature imagery and a kind of default recourse to anthropomorphic transformations, the themes are stark to behold. Real or fantasy, this is in many senses a fairly naked album.
That nakedness is evident in the changes in her voice, too. During the early stages of recording, Newsom developed nodes on her vocal chords and went through a period of enforced silence. A significant part of the healing process involved Newsom relearning how to sing, relearning the shape and timbre of her voice. Consequently her voice seems softer – more soulful even – and generally more adaptable to the arc and pitch of the songs. There are the odd shrill stabs, like the ‘cuckoos’ in ‘In California’ (where she sounds at her most Kate Bush-like), but overall there’s less glass in her voice somehow, it seems less likely to crack into shards. Paradoxically, there’s probably something to be said for this new found control making it easier to hide away, to shrink into the fabric of her fabulations, but you can also sense this new depth and subtlety to her voice will take her far.
And you do have to wonder how far Newsom can go. There was a feeling that Ys, with all its dramatic sweep and thematic ambition, was some kind of logical endpoint, that this thing had been taken as far as it could go. Yet, in the true passion of vaudeville, here she comes back at us, band in tow, dressed like a flapper in all that Lola Montez finery, filling that critical space with all the whirls and feints of her talent. It’s like she recognised she was at a juncture and ran with it. Gone is the whispery intimacy of the Albini production to be replaced by something broader, more rolling. Time will tell if this has the staying power it promises; and if, in its sprawling form, it can achieve the same sense of solidity that Ys seems to possess – and indeed if any of these songs will come to occupy the same sainted space as ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ from The Milk-Eyed Mender or the jaw-dropping perfection of ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’. But from this short distance, there are so many exquisite moments – that ecstatic Nabokovian pitch of the lyrics (always room for one more detail), that bluesy refrain in ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’, the ‘bump on a bump on a log’ from the same song (the whole damn thing is a revelation), the way she turns ‘Esme’ so beautifully into a 3 syllable trill, ‘Soft As Chalk’s’ Carole King-like mid section, ‘Kingfisher’s lament of ‘It is too short/the day we are born/we commence with our dying’ – so damn many, that really, you just have to stand and boggle.