Life's Rich Pageant
Joanna Newsom focuses her singular talent on everyday travails
Published: November 17, 2010
Something wonderfully ordinary happens one minute and 52 seconds into Joanna Newsom’s “Autumn,” off her triple album Have One on Me. The singing/songwriting harpist hits a high note of such piercing strength that it makes the experience of hearing the word sung feel as unknowable as the word itself.
That’s part of the point of music, isn’t it—to swirl sound and meaning into some transportive effect. What’s so ordinarily wondrous about this instance of it is where it happens. It arrives in the third song on the third CD. It hits you during the 15th song of 18 total in a digital playlist. By the time this moment makes the skin pucker and forearm hairs stand at attention, Have One on Me has already traveled through two LP’s worth of music and lyrics. And yet, there after 5,748 seconds of sound and 5,267 words, one single syllable sung stops the breath: “Died.”
Excuse the statistics, but when Drag City issued One back in February, its blatant heft figured into its reception. It was almost immediately praised and just as instantly dismissed because of its size: 18 songs running more than two hours, individual songs averaging nearly seven minutes. It’s a multicourse meal when pop is usually predicated on the grab-and-go snack, and taking it in all at once leaves you feeling a little engorged. And critical responses to the album veered from the rapturous to charges of overcooking. One is too much to take in at once, and Newsom—she of the idiosyncratic voice, unusual primary instrument, and pastoral, baroque lyrics—carries her own baggage.
When she first emerged in 2004, her spartan The Milk-Eyed Mender debut conveniently lumped her into the then-ascendent cadre of young musicians looking back to 1960s and ’70s folk and psychedelic artists. Loosely corralled under the “freak folk” and “New Weird American” marketing niches, musicians such as Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, Faun Fables, and Six Organs of Admittance were, in hindsight, very, very roughly equated. Mender might have gelled with that camp by virtue of it not fitting in anywhere else. Since, though, Newsom has left that ill-fitting genre with Van Dyke Parks’ labyrinthine strings on 2006’s Ys and the galloping cheekiness of the 2007 EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band. And slow-food digesting One nine months on, it’s much more clear what she’s up to. Nobody in pop or independent music right now is as all-in committed to conventional, old-fashioned beauty.
And by old-fashioned, we’re not talking Nick Drake—or Joni Mitchell, for that matter, One’s go-to precursor. Newsom’s aesthetic here is much more extravagant. One is steeped in the sort of gratuitous sensual beauty typically found in rococo paintings or Peter Greenaway movies. It’s supposed to be overwhelming, boundless, just a little too much. This sensibility creeps into the music and instrumentation. More than 20 backing musicians create One’s plush tapestry, yielding the album’s wide stylistic reach and production berth. The boogieing “Good Intentions Paving Company,” with its pulsating organ line and full drum kit momentum, isn’t merely Newsom’s most instantly accessible tune, it’s opulent pop. When Newsom’s multitracked voice provides the backing vocals on the second verse and a tambourine starts shaking, the song becomes a wide-screen epic. It invites you inside only to suffocate the senses.
What’s so hauntingly poignant about this sensual beauty is what Newsom does with it. One is a bluntly mortal album. Although its songs contain their moments of levity, such as “Easy”’s blissful ode to the pleasures of not leaving bed, One focuses on the inevitable collateral damages of time’s passing: the fireworks of brand new love evaporating into the sky, the tautness of youth wrinkling with age, the unstoppable slouching of life toward its end. Lyrically, One camps out in memories of romantic relationships past (“Have One on Me,” “’81,” “Soft as Chalk,” “Autumn,” “Kingfisher”), places where a life was once lived (“In California”), Enter the Void-ish limbos between life and death (“No Provenance”), goodbyes (“Baby Birch,” “On a Good Day,” “Go Long,” “Occident,” “Esme,” “Does Not Suffice”), and trying to get back to a better psychological place (“Jackrabbits”). This is an unmistakably autumnal album that just happened to be released before spring first poked through the snow.
She chooses to explore these certainties not from an arm’s remove but with a verbal intimacy and some of the more buoyant music of her career, one already dotted with florid effervescence. Sure, it helps that her chief instrument is the harp, that most celestial string instrument. Its very timbre sends melodies into the ether. Ask any harpist to play something dark and heavy for you as a experiment: Even Black Sabbath or Metallica on harp sounds like the angels giggling.
But that element alone doesn’t account for One’s levitating moments, when her lyrics and their musical settings conspire to yield an emotionally powerful presence. “Baby Birch” begins like an old prayer, Newsom providing harp accompaniment to her gently voiced lyrics. An electric guitar sparsely sneaks in about two minutes on and places a heavenly sustained chord behind Newsom’s lament: “Will you keep an eye on Baby Birch?/ Because I’d hate to see her make the same mistakes.” It’s a bewitching environment for a common disclosure of motherly concern.
Even more dramatic is the slowly gestating bloom that is “In California,” a song in which Newsom’s narrator recalls a former home and where her life is now. A harp melody begins the song, an acoustic bass and a subtle horn provide some contrast during the fourth and fifth verses, until, about four minutes in—after Newsom has almost silently breathed “But sometimes I can almost feel the power/ Sometimes I am so in love with you”—a string section comes in and begins a subtle process of layering textures and atmosphere to the song’s bittersweet memories. By the time Newsom and her harp have become almost imperceptibly backed by a full drum set, string quartet, and horn section, the song has become a wet-eyed swell of longing.
Such lovely music is why Newsom at her darkest still sounds like a flower-petal-lined bed. “You and Me, Bess” is practically a murder ballad, as macabre and plainspoken as “Banks of the Ohio” and somehow seductively pretty. It’s a tension Newsom builds into the lyrics: At the end of the second verse, her complicated narrator says to Bess of their clandestine meeting on the beach: “I hope Mother Nature has not overheard/ Though, she doles out hurt like a puking bird.”
What follows is a mysterious crime—or, even more unsettling, something considered a social crime, and Newsom’s narrator eventually gets led away to a hangman’s gallows. The entire time, the music hasn’t veered from a lullaby’s pace and nursery rhyme-like melody. It’s seven minutes of ethereal delicacy that ends in the ineffable, in the mind of the narrator, who hangs at the end a rope: “Kindness comes over me/ What was your name?/ It makes no difference/ I’m glad that you came.”
Such is this album’s emotional undertow: the everyday cohabitation of familiar pleasures and pains. It’s a mood that’s been created before and will certainly be again. But for right now, Have One on Me delivers one of the year’s more affecting reminders of everyday life’s inescapable seesawing from the cruelly wonderful to the wonderfully cruel.
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