Have you ever been so hungry for something, a rare treat that smelled so good sizzling on the coals, that against your better judgement, you burned your mouth in your wolfing haste to taste it? Upon procuring my copy of Joanna Newsom's latest opus, the fresh-from-the-fire triple LP Have One On Me, Christmas morning-ish feelings of borderline maniacal anticipation welled up in my belly and I imagined my immediate consumption would be not unlike taking a rich, slow-baked indulgence dish to the face and, Lord knows, how I tried. Eighteen songs and two hours later I felt pleased to have a feel for the depth and complexity of the bounty, but proper digestion recommends dipping in --- all the better to savor the flavor. Seriously folks, this big 'un is a whole mess of treasure that takes time --- sweet, precious time --- to appreciate in both fathomed comprehension and measured worth. So approach with a mind to settle in and absorb each third accordingly, one by one (because you know we'll be referring to them from now 'til eternity, respectively, as record one, record two and record three), and be sure to make time and take it, like Joanna's first cooing words on the opening track, "easy, easy."
Have One On Me as a complete work, generally speaking, plays like an almanac harkening a bygone age which, when you think about it, encompasses everything we've come to expect from Miss Newsom. The album artwork appears to draw heavily on art deco influences, what with the choice of typography, the subtle design notions featured on the insert and, of course, the cover image in which we see Newsom, sprawled kittenish on a couch, pictured in what appears to be a vintage tinted photograph of a disheveled dressing room decorated by a deranged zoologist. And it's all show inside as well: the black box houses three individually sleeved albums and a booklet packed with lyrics, credits, and a curious lack of thanks set against a series of four, seemingly sequential black and white candid shots of our girl in a simplified portrait setting evoking a subdued recollection of the madness depicted on the cover, looking very lithe, long-limbed and undeniably beautiful in bib-and-brace short-shorts (something tells me this look'll be trending a little while longer) as she twists her hair in a fix, gorgeous. Then there is the music.
For me, Joanna Newsom is as much Elton John on holiday as she is a harp-wielding Morgan le Fay. "Easy," the opening number, showcases the shadow and the light of Newsom's "Elton" leanings, that is to say, her ability to lay down a playful yet solid piano track that is as much of a portal unto itself as it is a portent of things to come. "Easy" begins slightly dormant in bed, yawning with lyrics suggesting the movements of a doomed relationship from contentedness to conflict to confrontation and, interestingly enough in the end, to conjuring. It's good stuff and good enough to rouse the listener into readiness for the multi-instrument maelstrom of musicianship to come in the eleven minute title track where Newsom flaunts her penchant for folklore and the storytelling origins of the bard instrument that have sensationalized her skills internationally. The song "Have One On Me," like "Easy," features a host of arrangements around Newsom's central vocals and instrumentation, providing a lushness very much like that of Van Dyke Parks' orchestral wizardry that graced the strains of Ys, not to mention the four man and a lady Ys Street Band (still a corn-nut of a moniker) that provided a miraculously scaled-down live distillation of the aforementioned orchestration on a scattering of instruments for Newsom's Ys tour (three of the original five comprise the core of the guest players on the new record). I suppose that's why Newsom claims that Have One On Me reflects an amalgam of her previous works.
While there are a few uncluttered, straightforward harp or piano plus vocal compositions on the record, many of the songs are dressed up in one way or another with arrangements attributed to the guest musicians themselves, some of whom play such exotic oddments as timpani, kora, Bulgarian tambura, kaval, vielle, rebec, and coronet (the bulk of the latter lending "Kingfisher," on record three, courtly virtue). Still, at first spin, these endowments make for a complicated, tight-lipped listen that takes a little getting used to and may, at least in my case, leave the listener wondering what some of these songs might sound like en deshabille. Still again, what works for songs like "Go Long," where Newsom plays three harps (!), and the jaunty seventies (1970's, not 1870's or earlier like some of Newsom's other pieces suggest) feel of "Good Intentions Paving Company" is the motley mélange of guitars, percussion, banjo, mandolin, trombone, piano and (especially!) the warm waves of the Hammond organ and layered vocal harmonies à la Joni Mitchell or Fleetwood Mac or --- so clearly single-worthy a track it was no mistake that it was leaked as a teaser (in fact, all the pre-release date treats are stand out numbers by now, just as surely as impatient hunger for the feast has broken them in).
The songs that lay latent for discovery are the slew of slow-burners, the nigh-on ten minute jams that sometimes build to a catchy peak or sprinting leap or sometimes languish in utter frankness like a solemn hymn (like in "Occident," on record two where she sings, "Lord: is it harder to carry on or to know when you're done?") or some kind of cold sober confession whether it concerns a lover ("Does Not Suffice"), a king ("Have One On Me"), a child ("Esme"), time ("Occident") a rabbit ("Baby Birch"), or a horse ("You And Me, Bess"). While it's nearly impossible to provide a track-for-track review of this record and remain brief, especially seeing how I've only spent a little over a weekend soaking it in --- not nearly enough time to grasp the gist of it --- I'll say that each song, like a jewel, owns its own little fire and comes alive in whatever light is shone upon it and that between each set of ears (maybe this goes without saying but, like a miner needs a headlamp, this record demands a headphones-on listening situation) lies the most precious, independent understanding that justifies Newsom's uncompromising approach to music-making, dream-weaving and what some might consider her overdoing it with the will-'o-the-wisp. But then there are the words.
Evidently, and I am aware that there be haters preening in the wings ready to disagree, Joanna Newsom has a giant brain. I arrive at this reckoning by taking into account facts that, first of all, like a rare bird, she makes complex, stew-like musical compositions sound effortless. Secondly, she somehow flawlessly guilds the lily in haute couture (which makes crackpots like Tyra Banks, in her tired efforts at trying, and repeatedly failing, to prove that you "need brains" to look good seem, well, like an idiotic hot mess). And, lastly, though one might suspect her of being overdrawn at the word bank, Joanna Newsom always finds time to thoughtfully craft tidy yet extremely meaningful lyrics that often necessitate a certain proximity to reference materials. Coming from a certainly bookish, girly think-tank like hers, the mind that put together a demo with songs like "Yarn And Glue" where words like "Panopticon" and "rabble-rouser" dash against allusions to "antediluvian crafts" and "mellifluous chimes" and "dandelion wines," the wit and wisdom of Have One On Me lies in the usual sticky web of well-spun loquaciousness that fans, like those who recently made news due to their impending publication of Newsom-inspired writings, will undoubtedly revel in. Once again, Newsom knows no dearth of excessive verbosity, no want for charming metaphors nor lyrics that just plain get to you. For example, in "Autumn," when she softly drawls, "Driven through by her own sword, summer died last night, alone/ Even the ghosts huddle up for warmth/ Autumn has come to my hometown," the wheel of the year switches gears in my mind for a second and I feel somewhat transported; I imagine it must be a little difficult for one to live so openly with their poetry as she does. After all, I don't think I'll ever relax the impact of her sweet cautionary line from 'En Gallop', "never get so attached to a poem, you/ forget truth that lacks lyricism," as uttered on her debut LP The Milk-Eyed Mender, no matter whose words I choose to live by.
Anyhoo, listening to Have One On Me again (and again) I'm finding so many pockets, hollows and niches of listening pleasure of both the appealing comfort and thrilling anti-gravity variety that I feel my theory about this heap of new material being a long-burner in the heart and in the mind growing as sound as the fully fed belly of a beast on the brink of hibernation. The fact is, love to love her or love to loathe her, Joanna Newsom seems to know no limit when it comes to purging her soul and turning it out artistically; no amount of bitching shall ever levy her oceanic powers of expression. And those folks who, like me, find their interests once again streaming alongside hers (at long last, for there is so much of it to go around of late thanks to this heavy well of a new release) will find solace in "Jackrabbits," when she explains, "It can have no bounds, you know/ It can have no end/ You can take my hand in the darkness, darlin/ when you need a friend/ And it can change in shape, or form/ but never change in size/ The water, it runs deep, my darlin/ where it don't run wide." A sagacious effort to say the very least.
"Jackrabbits" - live in Sydney, January 2010
"Jackrabbits" - live in Sydney, January 2010