Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me

Joanna Newsom
Have One on Me
Drag City

Hannah Green: Grady, you know how in class you’re always telling us that writers make choices?

Grady Tripp: Yeah.

Hannah Green: And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it’s… it’s at times… it’s… very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone’s horses, and the dental records, and so on. And… I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn’t make any choices. At all.

Wonder Boys, 2000, Directed by Curtis Hanson

We already know Joanna Newsom isn’t afraid to go big. Hell, she sits her small frame behind that hulk of a harp all the time, and knocks out those strange, percussive notes of hers. However, Have One on Me isn’t big — it’s enormous. It’s an album without borders, its two-hour-plus running time is an unruly and unreasonable length. We saw her expand from tight, contained songs on her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender to sprawling yet stately folk epics on Ys, backed by the huge swirl of Van Dyke Parks’ string arrangements. So, at first glance, you could mistake this new, triple-album as a next step for her.

Yet Have One on Me is not a logical progression. This isn’t the only thing that could have followed the expansive tracks on Ys. In fact, this album bears little if any resemblance to that one. That album has tracks like “Only Skin”, which clocks in at around 16-minutes, but the whole record runs for a contained 55-minutes. Each song is built on tight, energetic pieces knitted together nearly seamlessly. “Sawdust and Diamonds” wins you over in its ten minutes because it moves from forlorn space to taut pleading, each step along the way distinct and bracing.

There are moments like this, or at least close, on Have One on Me. “’81”, one of the shortest songs on the record, is a clever and charming Garden of Eden story. “It was dirt and dirt is all the same,” she coos early on, then spends the songs making dirt seem awfully special, effectively mixing the properness of her biblical setting with a colloquial language that works well for her, since it makes the plink and plunk of the harp a little more approachable.

“Baby Birch” is barely there for six-minutes, as Newsom does her best approximation of a thumping cowboy ballad. Like “Sawdust and Diamonds”, it rides on a tense quiet that erupts, yet remains controlled, with spacey drums and long, tangled strings of words. It sets us up for other solid ballads on the record like the affecting “Go Long” and standout “In California”. The latter is one of the better arrangements on the record, a gentle mix of stringed instruments that lay back and let Newsom’s vocals spin and fall, channeling Joni Mitchell at her most arresting.

She also stretches out and tries some new sounds here, a few of which work. “Good Intentions Paving Company” is the most upbeat song we’ve heard yet from Newsom. It’s straight piano-pop, built up by bright drumming, and Newsom spins a lyrical web while holding onto melody through most of the song, which is what makes it work over its long running time.

Still, around this handful of standouts is a huge swath of music. Big, wandering, formless music. The title song, barely the longest here at 11-minutes, acts as a microcosm for the entire album. It starts with a modest melody, Newsom nearly whispering over her harp. Then the song wanders off, away from its own structure for a number of minutes, before trying to mask it by crowding up the song with percussion and lush strings and horns and whatever else seemed to be lying around.

“Soft As Chalk” attempts a kind of barroom piano stomp, and while the moment of deep rhythm is nice, it’s surrounded on all sides long, trudging phrases, both lyrically and on the piano, that weigh the track down. That song also leads into an entire third disc that runs slow, Newsom’s voice now slack in its quiet, seeming exhausted after whooping up all these sounds. “Autumn” is threadbare, almost the impression of a song rather than the song itself, except for where strings rise up and overwhelm it. “Ribbon Bows”, on the other hand, announces itself with a bit more authority, but then spends its time trying, and failing, to find steady ground.

So who can blame Joanna Newsom for sounding tired as these songs wind down? Have One on Me is an exhausting album to listen to. Even its high points take an effort and though they provide that sweeter brand of fatigue — that challenging but ultimately rewarding music can yield — they are surrounded by these other sandbags.

It’s not even that the album is so long, at least as far as running time goes, but that all this music seems to have no shape whatsoever. No decisions are being made here, as if every note created for this album was preserved in this, the final product. That’s a frustrating result for a songwriter that, love her or hate her, has show so much restraint up to now, so much ability to find space and affecting expansion within tight structures. There are no real structures here, however, and this is not exploration. It’s expansion, directionless and ungrounded, and much of Have One on Me floats away as a result.

Sure, there is a precedent for this kind of huge album. We’ve seen them before, and they all seem to hold some of their charm in their unapologetic imperfection. So even if it’s not a good album, Have One on Me is a fascinating document of an artist and her approach. However, this isn’t the same as Tusk or Odessa or even something from much later, like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Those Fleetwood Mac and Bee Gees records were set up to fail, fueled as they were by drugs and excess, both seemingly ubiquitous in pop music and prone to huge, hubris-injected misjudgments. Billy Corgan shouldered an ego that could have its own hemisphere when Smashing Pumpkins were at the height of their powers, and that feeling of being untouchable led to his own, huge, sprawling mess.

Newsom doesn’t seem to fall prey to any of these vices. So what makes it so hard to chalk this one up as charmingly uneven, or to even approach the word “ambitious” when talking about the album, is that everything we’ve seen from her before this points to one fact: she should know better. The album artwork says it all. In all that high-brow clutter, it’s hard to even make Newsom out in the picture, and the same is true when you listen to the music.

It’s not ambition when you’re not making any choices, and it’s not daring when there’s not much at stake. In the digital world, a triple album is just a few more ones and zeroes to fit on the hard drive. It’s too bad really, that Have One on Me is so overdone because there’s a decent album hidden somewhere in there. It’s an album the Newsom we saw in 2006 would have found, formed, and made shine.

RATING 4 / 10