Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

by Rich Morris Rating:9.5 Release Date:2010-03-01

Love her or loathe her - and plenty of people do loathe her - one thing you can't accuse Joanna Newsom of is a lack of ambition. The Californian's first album, 2004's The Milk Eyed Mender, was a collection of pretty, whimsical acoustic guitar ditties, but she followed it up with the monumental Ys in 2006. Produced by Van Dyke Parks, recorded by Steve Albini and mixed by Jim O'Rourke - something of a holy trinity of legendary American producers - and consisting of only five epic tracks (the longest clocked in at seventeen minutes, while the shortest flew by in a mere seven) performed largely on the harp and augmented by Parks' lush string arrangements, it marked an extraordinarily bold leap for someone who many had written off as just another Joni Mitchell wannabe. The songs were steeped in quasi-mythic imagery, which gave the album a bizarre, otherworldly feel, and the music roamed restlessly across the landscape of classic and contemporary Americana. It was and is a 24-carat masterpiece (at least in this writer's opinion), but provoked the understandable question - what can she possibly do to top this? The answer: produce something even bigger, even more esoteric, even more ambitious.

Have One On Me is a triple album containing over two hours of music. It is largely made up of complex, multi-layered songs that push the eight, nine, ten, eleven-minute mark. It's tempting to speculate that Newsom has chucked quality control out of the window, and merely put everything but the kitchen sink onto the record. But Have One On Me is a remarkable and consistent piece of work, alternately wistful, funny, touching, and bizarre, and packed with so much lyrical depth and nuance and so much musical virtuosity that you could listen to it a hundred times and still discover some new detail or texture that you hadn't noticed before. Music critics have salivated over it, and much as Soundblab would like to be different, I must report that it is a brilliant, brilliant record.

It opens with 'Easy', which sees Newsom painting herself as some sort of ghostly stalker, materialising before the unwilling object of her affections: "Like a Bloody Mary seen in the mirror/Speak my name and I appear." It's followed by the eleven minute title track, which is as lyrically bizarre as Newsom gets ("Daddy longlegs, are you proud?") Similarly intriguing is 'You and Me Bess', a tragic poem about a horse-rustler sentenced to death, its horns and jaunty "La la la las" seeming wonderfully odd and incongruous. 'Good Intentions Paving Company' - which I'd call the poppiest track here, if that weren't a hopelessly inadequate way of describing it - begins with a brisk piano refrain and an intoxicating vocal hook, before resolving into a beautiful, soulful lament, Newsom's voice exhibiting a gravity that it never has before. 'In California' is reminiscent of, yes, Joni Mitchell, but is nine minutes long and played on a harp.

The most striking quality of the songs on Have One On Me, despite their length and intricacy, is restraint. The maximalist tendencies of Ys, are absent; instrumentation is carefully chosen and the tracks are still complex but much more subtle. So 'Go Long', a gorgeously dark and brooding dreamscape, utilises little more than an acoustic guitar and a kora (a kind of African harp-like instrument) to stunning effect; the brilliant 'Baby Birch', meanwhile, unfolds majestically, building from its lush, drifting first half into something more insistent, flavoured by sparse pangs of electric guitar and snare rolls. The lyrics are still highly involved, almost antiquated tales, displaying Newsom's talent for storytelling and vivid imagery, but the music has a lightness of touch that even approaches playfulness at times. It's also surprisingly accessible; the aforementioned 'Good Intentions…' and 'Baby Birch' in particular are striking and memorable from the first listen.

Having said that, Have One On Me is nevertheless a vast piece of work; it will take a lot of listening to get to the bottom of its majesty. There's so much to get your teeth into here, and the songs are of such a consistently high standard, that arguments about whether Newsom should have released a shorter, more concise album become moot. Records like this - of this scope, ambition and richness - don't come along very often, so best not to ask questions, and instead gratefully throw yourself into the strange, beautiful world that Newsom has created.

Pete Sykes

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