Joanna Newsom revisited

Photo: Annabel Mehran

Joanna Newsom has always been one of those artists that I liked… but only in theory. Sure, she’s beautiful. Yes, it’s awesome that she plays the harp. I’ll concede that her lyrics are intriguing. And fine, she clearly has talent and a unique outlook. But her Voice? (1) Yikes. I just couldn’t handle it.

That said, I admit I was curious to hear her three-disc extravaganza, Have One On Me, so I decided to check it out when it streamed on NPR Music. After twenty minutes of listening, and I couldn’t believe my ears. I used to recoil at the sound of her Voice, but you know what? I didn’t immediately reach for mute. I can now truthfully report that I actually listened to the whole thing – not in one sitting of course. I’m not that dedicated to the cause. Like its predecessors, Have One On Me is certainly not for everyone. Heck, I’m not sure if it’s even for me, which is one of the main reasons I set out to write this review.

OK, so before I begin, there’s an important distinction I’d like to make. There’s Joanna Newsom’s voice and then there’s her Voice. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been turned off by her capital-V Voice in the past, but Have One On Me marks a significant departure from her previous two albums in the voice department. Have One On Me is a whopper of an album, filled with excessive songs that keep twisting and turning, as if determined to last forever. With the exception of “On a Good Day,” the shockingly short opening track on disc two, Have One On Me showcases extremely long songs. Hitting the eight or nine minute mark is the norm – not the exception. The title track, for instance is a bit trying. It is overly theatrical, heavy on the harp, and seems to contain more of that signature baby Voice. Clocking in at around 11 minutes, “Have One On Me” lacks focus and is simply exhausting to listen to. Joanna seems to be meandering more in her lyrics and with her voice.

Of course, Joanna’s stylistic choices throughout the album are certainly interesting. In addition to being rather lengthy, her songs are a bit odd in that they rarely have a chorus. Instead, the lyrics wind on and on and almost seem more appropriate for an epic poem that a traveling minstrel might have performed sometime during the 13th century.

Joanna’s triple album opens with “Easy.” The song introduces a romance that seems almost medieval due to Joanna’s delivery, the lush instrumentation, and her beautiful but rather old-fashioned diction, laid out in poetic lines. To me, the music conjures up an image of a woman in the forest singing out to a knight nearby who can’t quite hear her. The word ‘easy’ in the song refers to the ability to love, but I can’t help but think about its relevance to the album as a whole. This Joanna is  easier to digest, and many of the themes introduced in the opening track continue to pop up throughout the album, lending it some kind of a cohesiveness despite its expansive length.

“’81” continues the fairytale-like feel present from the very first song and references both the Garden of Eden and spring. It is naive and hopeful in its declaration: “I believe, regardless. I believe in everyone.”

“You and Me, Bess” is also rather pleasant. It features a trumpet and hardly any signs of her grating Voice make an appearance.

Then there’s “In California,” which features Joanna cawing. Yes. Cawing. Like the bird. This kind of act may be ok for seasoned Joanna Newsom fans, but it’s asking for a bit much for my untrained ear. Yes, I know you’re weird. Fine. There’s no need to keep looking for ways to prove it. I sometimes wonder if Joanna Newsom has some permutation of Lady Gaga syndrome and exhibits a certain sound just for show and for shock value. But it’s not that simple. She is certainly not a spotlight hog and has spent a considerable amount of time staying under the radar since releasing her last album. Time Out New York’s Sophie Harris summed it up well by saying:

The news this past month that she was poised to release a triple album was delightful and disorienting; it was the musical equivalent of “I’m pregnant! Due next week! And it’s triplets!”

“Jackrabbits” is sing-songy  romantic lullaby that gets a bit psychotic at the end there with repetitive line “I can love you again.” I can almost picture her saying it with a crazed look in her eye and a meat cleaver raised over her shoulder.

“Autumn,” the fourth track on disc three, marks a definite change of pace. Where the majority of the previous songs focused on love and seemed pretty hopeful over all, a heavy-handed allusion to autumn indicates decay and increasingly dark days. (2)

“Kingfisher” keeps her Voice at bay and instead showcases the more dulcet tones of her voice. Clocking in at over nine minutes long, “Kingfisher” is a pretty good representation of the album. It has it all: the harp, the medieval sound, and compelling (if not a bit over-the-top) lyrics. (3)

In fact, if you’re pressed on time and cannot dedicate over 2 hours to listen to the three-piece album in its entirety, you could kind of just listen to “Kingfisher” and call it a day. It’s a pretty solid track, as is the album’s conclusion – “Does Not Suffice.”

Photo: Jesse Chehak

I really wish I could sit down with Joanna – be it at a coffee shop or at a clearing in the forest – and ask her about the evolution of her albums and more importantly, her Voice. Upon reflection, I think what most bothered me about her Voice was that I associated it with a gimmick she used to get people talking. It seemed too over-the-top and contrived to be real.

Has she really improved as dramatically as it sounds? Is she now more willing to trade in her trying Voice for something that appeals to a wider audience? Which does she prefer: her Voice or her voice? Is one more genuine than the other? Does this new voice denote a loss of authenticity or has she just dropped a rouse?

Hmm… what do you think?

(1) Yes, I intentionally capitalized ‘Voice.’ More on that later.

(2) Or, in Joanna speak, “violent love” and “silent, dove-gray days.

(3) “I had a dream you came to me, said you shall not go me harm anymore,
and with your knife, you evicted my life from its light lighthouse on the seashore.”


3 Responses to “Joanna Newsom revisited”

  1. 1 fakebook March 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    You haven’t mentioned the best and the scariest track from Have One on Me, Baby Birch: where Joanna gleefully skins a rabbit and taunts it while it is “kicking and mewling.”

    “Wherever you go, little runaway bunny, I WILL FIND YOU.”

    I don’t agree with you that Have One on Me is any easier to digest than her previous 2 (plus an EP) official releases. First of all, there’s obviously a lot of music. HOoM also has strange forays into ragtime, blues, jazz, and Asian-inflected music, among others. (Musically, it’s like an open road-map–and that’s why the title track is so very brilliant and elusive: it dares to go everywhere.) And her lyrics have gotten more blunt and personal. A handful of the songs still hover in the length of 6 to 10 minutes…

    What, then, is so “easy” about this album?

    As you mentioned, people seem to project a lot of their own subjective discomfort with Joanna Newsom’s singing voice. It is as if the fact that her voice is unpleasant to them means that Joanna’s singing is fit to be scrutinize as being contrived. Seems like classic passive-aggressive criticism to me.

    The voice is a musical instrument: it is the most primal and intimate of them all. And to complain about its tone in a popular or folk music context is ridiculous as there are no rules or no guiding precedent for how one should sound in the end. The human voice also capable of great versatility and emotion and complaining about the sound of a singer’s voice (the tone and the affect, that is) is like complaining that the drums are too loud or that violins are too squeaky. Only a complete idiot would complain about the sound of the rag-tag guitar coming from a Charley Patton recording. So why do we subject a singer’s voice on account of its purported unpleasantness? People can discuss whether a singer is too mannered in their phrasing and discuss the style of singing at hand but dismissing or questioning a singer for her tone is ridiculous.

    The voice is a pliable instrument that undergoes change over time and it is also something which one can learn to play/use in a different way. Why can’t we take Joanna Newsom’s voice for what it is today, what it was yesterday, and what it may be in the future?

    I hardly doubt that there was any consideration by the artist of modifying her voice for the sake of reaching out to a wider audience, as you suggest. This is not an “easy” record for mass consumption. And, for the record, the actual shift in her voice from her first LP to her second, Ys, was far more prominent and pronounced than the changes on with her third. I suspect that your reservations and skepticism had more to do with being informed by the gossip her art than actual listening appreciation.

    Anyhoo, I’m glad that you’re coming around to Joanna Newsom. In my view, her rambunctious singing on Peach Plum Pear from The Milk-eyed Mender is pitch-perfect.

  2. 2 rachelkowal March 29, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    You make many good points. I admit I don’t know much about Joanna’s previous albums – mostly because I couldn’t handle listening to them.

    There are certainly many things about Have One On Me that make it challenging to the listener, true. Bunny violence aside, the length of the album alone is enough to make it rather difficult to consume.

    But I think here’s where we differ:
    I think you absolutely can critique an artist’s voice. In fact, I think it would be negligent for a writer, a listener, or a fan to fail to mention the voice – especially if it is as unique as Joanna’s.

    If I don’t like someone’s approach to drumming, I am less likely to appreciate their music. (Yes, I have complained before that the drumming was too loud. It can be distracting when the levels aren’t balanced and the drumming overshadows everything else.) In a similar manner, if I am turned off by the tone of someone’s voice, I am also less likely to appreciate their music. In fact, the vocals matter a great deal to me in music. Conor Oberst’s voice is the main reason I could never stomach Bright Eyes. Same with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.

    Also – I’m not necessarily claiming that Joanna made a conscience decision to modify her voice. I would just be curious to ask her about it to hear about how the evolution has occurred. (Has she taken voice lessons? When she listens to recordings of herself singing – say four years ago, what does she think about it? Would she say that her voice has lost some aspect of authenticity over time?) I understand that I am not in a position to make any judgments on these questions since I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. I am merely posing these as questions for consideration and relaying the suspicions that initially clouded my perception of her.

    Again, I do appreciate your thoughtful response.

  3. 3 Swinny April 25, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    From Wikipedia:

    Critics noticed a change in Newsom’s voice on her latest album[23][24]. In the spring of 2009, Newsom developed vocal chord nodules and couldn’t speak, sing or cry for two months. The recovery from the nodules and further “vocal modifications” changed her voice.[25][26][27]

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"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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