Really? This was what all the secrecy was about? Treated with all the reverence and conspiratorial paranoia of a holy relic, Joanna Newsom’s three-disc monstrosity, Have One on Me, doesn’t quite live up to the manufactured elevation that surrounds it. That’s not to say it’s a bad album. On the contrary, Have One on Me (as if any other title could be more of an ironic joke aimed at reviewers who received the album so late) is elegant, delicate, airy and mature, a musical representation of a diaphanous angelic form. Do I sound conflicted? I suppose I might be. What I mean to suggest here is that the album, all three discs of it, seems to suffer under the weight of its own grandiosity. Though the songs can sometimes be slices of understated beauty or intricate clouds on which to languor away the day, the sum of its parts are always in danger of creating a blended miasma of monotony, with only a few songs ascending from the homogenous, overlong pack.
I first started following Joanna Newsom in 2004, after having seen her perform an amazing set at Neumo’s, supporting Sufjan Stevens. Everything about her seemed genuine, despite the fact that the notion of a quirky-voiced harpist seems somewhat self-consciously constructed. Her first two albums have been gems of different sorts, the first a hyperkinetic bluegrass romp, the second a more stately and melancholic fantasy world, yet both amazingly constructed and engaging. It is difficult to find engagement in an album that spans over two hours. Taken in pieces, one can have better luck. For instance, one can hear from the outset, in the opener, “Easy,” that Newsom’s voice has been tempered. There is an elegance and maturity to it, as if having finally found it after letting it roam to unnatural heights. The arrangements, while not as intensely focused as those of Van Dyke Parks, are more suited to Newsom’s style. “Easy,” as well as more than a handful of songs on Have One On Me, are eerily reminiscent of the early work of Kate Bush.
One gets a buoyant feeling from the album, as if either floating or swimming. This is especially evident in the first part of the title track, though at 11 minutes, the song takes plenty of opportunity to change direction while it evokes juxtaposing nursery rhyme images of royal kingdoms and varieties of spiders. “’81” is one of the few tracks previewed from the album. Like some of the tracks on Ys, one can picture it being played in a medieval court, as maidens dance with ribbons wrapped around a maypole. Another of the previewed tracks, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” is a wonderful standout. The seven-minute song ventures into classic rock territory, with Newsom’s voice at its most luxuriant and capable while displaying delicacy and muscle at the same time.
There is no doubt that Newsom is an enormous talent. Lyrically, compositionally and harmonically, she is nearly unparalleled. Because of this, Newsom’s fans, having only received the smallest taste of the massive triple album, are already heralding it as a masterpiece and a magnum opus. I can understand this, as I was one of the few champions for Prince’s bloated triple album, Emancipation. The thing is, I was wrong. I applaud Newsom for even attempting such a work in the day and age of single-song downloading and the widely prophesied death of the album. Each song from Have One on Me, on its own merit, is a stunner. Take the quiet lullaby of “Baby Birch,” itself as beautiful and soothing a song as can be, but taken together, as a ten-minute piece of a two hour puzzle, and one is left looking for change. Luckily, one gets a drastic change at more than six minutes in, but by then its almost too late. Interestingly, she opens the second disc with the shortest song she has ever released, going to prove that they don’t all have to be marathons.
Another touchstone for Have One On Me is the music of Joni Mitchell. “In California,” in particular, is redolent with Mitchell’s folksy style. The combination of the Bush and Mitchell likenesses can be at times transformative, and at others precious. “Jackrabbits” is another gorgeous (and shorter) standout, concentrated mostly on Newsom’s harp and voice, the nucleus of her entrancing arsenal. However, after time, as you get to the third disc, and tracks such as “Soft as Chalk” and “Esme,” it seems that they sound exactly like a track you’ve heard earlier, that somehow the album must have been on repeat and started anew. It makes me wish that Newsom and Drag City had decided instead to release the three albums separately, dividing them up into different dates spread over the course of the year. Separately, each disc is an album unto itself, able to be absorbed and enjoyed as a distinct collection.
As a whole, in its three disc incarnation, Have One On Me is simply overextended. Songs in this format, especially the longer tracks, meld into an amorphous mass, nearly unable to be picked out from amongst the conglomeration. There are very few extended albums that one can point to as being wholly impressive. In fact, right now only The White Album and Blonde on Blonde come to mind, and those were only double albums (could the third disc be the ‘one’ in Have One On Me?) Most are affairs with a few strong numbers and mostly filler. Newsom’s latest is neither. Ultimately, Have One On Me is a collection of some pretty amazing songs that suffer from merely being lumped together with other pretty amazing songs that sound nearly the same.
Kate Bush – The Kick Inside
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Laura Nyro – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
Listen: “Good Intentions Paving Company”