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.”
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.”