Joanna Newsom Have One On Me Album Review


Vinyl giveaway details at the end of the review.
Joanna Newsom
Have One On Me
Drag City
out February 23rd

[Rating Scale]


I've been trying to review this Joanna Newsom album for a couple weeks now, and damn if it isn't difficult. Ironic, because the album opens with Newsom repeating the word "easy" in her distinctive and captivating voice. Have One On Me, which spans three discs and clocks in at over two hours, is anything but easy.

For one thing, there's the sheer mass of the thing. When I review an album, I generally like to listen to it, in its entirety, at least four or five times. With Have One On Me, that's a full day's work. Compared to most albums, which generally run around forty or fifty minutes these days, it's gargantuan.

It's more than size, though, that makes this a tough release to digest. The album is complex, layered, subtle. It's so multi-faceted as to appear schizophrenic. There are songs on the album that certainly stand out – "Good Intentions Paving Company," "Baby Birch," and "Go Long," to name a few – but the tracks also have a tendency to bleed together. Yes, Have One On Me is easier to comprehend than Newsom's last release, Ys. But then again, so are most collegiate physics classes.

Excuses, excuses. I could go on to talk about the labyrinthine lyrical depth or the dynamic range that alternates between lush and barely audible, but I won't (other than that brief mention). The fact of the matter is that Joanna Newsom is alienating to some and endearing to others. And for me, reviewing this album was a bit like putting together a puzzle, finishing, and still needing time to decipher what the picture on the puzzle was. I didn't love Ys, and I expected to dislike Have One On Me. But what I originally saw as self-indulgent, I now see as necessary – this album needs room to spread its wings, it needs corners to work itself into. And so it comes to this: Despite feeling like I can't quite grasp all of the moving parts, I am enchanted by this album.

Have One On Me invariably draws comparisons to Soviet Kitsch era Regina Spektor.  At times it reminds me of Loretta Lynn. Name me a female with a distinctive voice, and I'll find you a review that has compared Joanna Newsom to that songstress. When talking about Newsom's music it's easy to fixate upon her voice. It has a child-like timbre without sounding immature, whimsical yet wizened. She warbles, flitting about the register as easily as hands on a piano keyboard.

But there's more to this music than just her voice – in fact, I would argue that her harp playing is just as central to the music she makes. Spacious and airy, the harp provides a gentle structure for Have One On Me without intruding, providing the aural scaffolding whose absence has left listeners lost in the past. Horns and drums punctuate the album as well, but without the tracks laid down by Newsom's harp I'm afraid the album would quickly de-rail.

It doesn't, though. It stays firmly on course, winding though that course may be. As two hours draw to a close, Have One On Me doesn't leave me exhausted or bored. It leaves me rejuvenated and with a new sense of what can be done within the constraints of an album. I'm not going to listen to it every day, not a chance. But I know there will be days when it's perfect.

Joanna Newsom resides in a space all her own – it's safe to say that there isn't another artist like her currently producing music, at least not that I've come across. Perhaps that's why we stretch for comparisons, familiar markers that serve as jumping off points to understanding a unique sound. But it's only after letting go of those guides and letting Newsom take the reins that I truly began to appreciate her craft. Try to shove her into a box, and she will not fit. Throw the box away and just listen.

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