Joanna Newsom must be the most enigmatically fascinating figure in indie music today. Though she’s shrouded in a barely-tangible sense of cultured innocence—her closeness with her astrophysicist and musician siblings, her compositions and lyricism refined by academia yet bejeweled with joy—she’s ended up working with some of the most formidably famous people in the business and come off not a scratch more cynical. Considering that her initial recommendation came from Will Oldham, most famous for the gorgeously dark album _I See a Darkness_, that she’s dated Bill Callahan, the eminent pioneer of despairing lo-fi, and that she’s been produced by such industry gods as Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke, it’s astonishing that she’s managed to keep such a Björkish pixie-like aura—even more so that her most recent body of work seems to reflect a deepening of that early endearing childlikeness.
Consider her new album in context: six years ago, having barely gained the full rights of adulthood, this inimitable Ms. Newsom let loose upon the indie freak-folk scene _The Milk-Eyed Mender_, an _arpa_-centric album with mysteriously mature lyrical leanings and articulation apparently due to an Appalachian matriarch. So meteoric was her subsequent rise in acclaim that no less a Name than Van Dyke Parks was recruited to embellish her orchestrated follow-up, the prodigious pentaëpyllion _Ys_—a work of art less personal and less warm, but far more grand and grandiloquent, shocking in the scope of its ten-minute verbal aristeiai, and (with some notable exceptions) attracting even more acclaim than its predecessor. The hypothetical follow-up full-length LP was greatly anticipated—but, as she then reminded us, the meteorite was the source of the light, while the meteor was just what we saw. For three years, her ostensible shyness prevailed—the meteorite hurtled towards a destination we could not conceive, and we saw no more of her asterism.
Until this winter, when—her brainchild having heretofore been kept under preternaturally heavy wrapping—the project, tentatively titled _Have One on Me_, was revealed to encompass no fewer than eighteen songs and three separate discs, terrifying those who’d shied clear of the relative sumptuousness of _Ys_. Surely such a staggeringly stupendous _magnum opus_ would be even less accessible, with none of the homey happiness and innocence of her _début_. Besides, triple albums, especially extravagant ones, have historically tended to be more stuffed with filler—there are far more _Sandinista!_s in the world than there are creations of the caliber of _All Things Must Pass_. Wouldn’t this be disaster?
But such fears have turned out to be unprecedentedly unfounded. Joanna Newsom has brought to the table, in complete modesty and not even a modicum of vainglory, one of the densest and most gorgeous feasts of popular music since—well, unless _Blueberry Boat_ can be counted to be dazzlingly beautiful in an intensely unconventional manner, this might be the most simultaneously layered and emotionally transcendent work of popular musical art since _Pet Sounds_. Such lushness is accomplished through no massive orchestra; rather, through a couple of handfuls of session musicians, producing a sound much more suited to chamber music—far more understated than the adornments of Parks, yet still tickling to both the brain and the ear, incorporating not only folk and baroque but jazz, blues, piano pop, and even some mild rock influences.
In her first showcase to the world, lead single “Good Intentions Paving Company,” Newsom chose a batch of _bric-a-brac_ that stuck with stylistic through-composition, but, to the consternation of some, the song lacked her trademark harp and timbral quirks. The Appalachia previously exhibited in her vocal style departed with the arrival of a new aesthetic more reminiscent of Kate Bush; the Americana expressed throughout her previous work manifested itself instead in alt-country instrumentation—subtly honky-tonkish piano supported by banjo, mandolin, drunken house brass, and, for the first time in her history, drums and percussion! I am sure some purists of the _Milk-Eyed Mender_ school fainted. I myself was somewhat skeptical that such an artistic leap could be pulled off—but just as “Good Intentions…” can’t be defined by a single passage in its structure, neither can _Have One on Me_ be defined by a song, nor even an individual disc.
Instead, one must recognize the themes swirling and resplendent throughout this tertiary triumph. _Ys_ was oft-described as a song cycle—not unreasonably, given its autobiographical quality—but _Have One on Me_ is an encapsulation of her entire oeuvre to date, a triptych blending that storytelling magic so perfectly exhibited in _Ys_ with the sentimental sentiments that characterized _Milk-Eyed Mender_.
Even within the first disc the harmonious dichotomy is clear: such fabulous fables as the title track and “No Provenance,” taking up the mantle of the _Ys_ian travelogue, are interwoven with the life-affirming string-laden beauty of “Easy” and pure harp simplicity of “’81,” in which Newsom sings and stresses oh-so-softly: “I’m your little life-giver; I will give you life”; “I was born to love you, and I intend to love you”; “I believe in innocence, little darling; I believe in everyone.” It seems that her journeys from home are taking her such wonderful places as she has never before seen—but things turn sinister with the start of the second disc. “On a Good Day,” which could pass for a pure 14th-century English folk tune, sees her speaking to a lover: “Will you leave me be, so that we can stay true to the path that you have chosen?”
The parting of the paths finds her “squinting towards the East” (“Jackrabbits”), drawing analogies between her misogynist host and a vicious Indian prince (“Go Long”)—possibly the most vicious lyric she’s ever released. Yet she hasn’t lost her sense of love—looking back home in “Occident,” she asks, “Lord, is it harder to carry on, or to know when you are done?”, and, seemingly having made her choice, speaks possibly the defining lyric of the record: “To leave your home, and your family, for some distortion of property? Well, darling, I can’t go. But you may stay here, with me.”
Somewhere along this path of pervasive prowess, one notices the lack of wildness in her voice—it’s grown and developed far beyond its previous appearances. This shift in vocal expression is due to quite possibly the most devastating and influential event in her life in the past few years: in spring 2009, Newsom, who had won the hearts of hundreds of thousands with that ineffably peculiar intonation, was diagnosed with vocal cord nodules, not only eliminating her voice, but also preventing her from fully expressing her emotions. “In fact,” she stated in an interview with the _Times_, “crying was the absolutely worst thing I could do to my voice. So I was constantly telling myself, don’t feel, don’t feel, don’t feel.” She emerged from the condition after two months, though not unscathed—her formerly “untrainable” voice (by her own account) developed a richer, more mature nature (“I may have changed. It’s hard to gauge. Time won’t account for how I’ve aged,” she sings in “Autumn”). Her songwriting, on the other hand, shows something remarkable. She’s taken as great a pleasure as she can in once again being able to express herself, and has done so in practically every way possible: not only is her music more evocative of beauty and emotion than ever before, but her lyricism allows for an unabashed celebration of not only deep love but _feeling_. It’s a cathartic eruption, albeit one of the least disturbing and most comforting emotional explosions ever placed on record.
_Have One on Me_ is a candescent crown to Newsom’s career, more accessible yet accomplished than anything she—or any former freak-folk figure—has attempted previously. Most of all, she seems perfectly settled in this style, the union of her first two attempts at stairways to heaven. Certainly, she found first panegyric with domestic personalism, then set out into the unknown in search of the mystic Ys—but it seems as though the destination of such a journey was the warmth and love of home all along, and she’s fully contented to be there. And as this realization has resulted in such a superlatively towering and passionately moving achievement, I, too, am more than happy with home as her place of rest.