Oscar Hyde having provided you, in his nefariously multifarious style, with all the juicy historical context you could possibly desire [see prior article], I find myself relieved of the standard duty to explain that “Newsom has two parents” and “Newsom plays the harp,” and in rather the unique and enviable position of being able to assume the reader already knows the basic Joanna Newsom story. Let me waste no time before beginning to sermonize, then, as to how we ought to think of Newsom’s intrepid new album. My first commandment is this: it is wrong, and hideous, and ungodly, to judge _Have One on Me_ quantitatively.
I’m sorry to begin what will otherwise be a truly joyous article on this somewhat sour note, and yet I feel it must be said: how is it that such an emotionally sensitive work of art is subjected to the patent absurdity of being graded? Am I the only one who sees something blasphemous in _Entertainment Weekly_’s taking Joanna Newsom’s most heartfelt gift to the world, years in the making, and assigning it an “A-minus”? As if to say, “Thanks anyway, Joanna, but your music isn’t quite good enough for us—we’ll stick with Lady Gaga.” And more importantly, how is it possible that a man who evaluates music for a living can listen to the entire album and then haughtily stamp the quality of his experience with the value of “4” out of 10? Are you deaf, _Popmatter_’s Matthew Fiander? Are you insane?
In truth, Fiander could mount a decent defense of his erring review if only he admitted what is self-evident, namely, that he didn’t have time to listen to the album—a music critic can’t listen to _everything_ he reviews—and so he resorted to educated guesses as to what the album’s flaws might be. I mean, it’s reasonable to think that an album over two hours long would turn out to be meandering, its holistic integrity lacking, its narration exhausting. And truly, if _Have One on Me_ were two hours’ worth of _Ys_, it would be a difficult sell. But as the better critics have noted, and as Newsom herself explains, the new album is unlike _Ys_ in that it is more direct, relying less on folksy parable and more on relatively straightforward sentiments about the vagaries of love, the primacy of the home, the power of kindness. It’s not that she was being dishonest on previous albums, of course; as Newsom put it in a recent interview with [the UK’s] _The Times_, “It’s just a straighter path to the same truth.”
Joanna Newsom’s truth has always been an excruciatingly beautiful thing. That’s why we listened to 2004’s _Milk-Eyed Mender_, back when her voice was a bit screechy and even “childish” (although I hesitate to use the word, knowing that she resents it as a description of her voice, and knowing that she is at this very moment reading these words). That’s also why we listened to Ys, despite early doubts as to whether any album ought to be allowed to have such shockingly long tracks. But when the last harp- and heart-string was plucked on opening track “Emily,” the question suddenly became: why would Newsom ever write a song less than twelve minutes long again?
As an artist, Newsom is suited to such epic song lengths, and to elaborate conceptual projects more broadly, simply because she has the rare talent, she is the rare talent, capable of pulling them off. And with regard to _Have One on Me_, the consensus is already crystallized—there can be no doubt about it—Newsom, by God, has done it again. Over the course of three discs’ worth of immaculate songwriting, she has shown that despite her insomnia and her professed worldly haplessness, she is putting her time to better use than everyone else. She is the artist _par excellence_, the stubborn perfectionist with all the right instincts, a voice that dances easily as nimbly as Regina Spektor’s, a constantly evolving aesthetic, and _ambitions_, giant, tremendous ambitions that always seem indubitably fated to come across as pretentious _but never do_.
For the fact of the matter is that Newsom is not pretentious, but rather, is simply an extraordinarily thoughtful, heartbreakingly honest young woman. We _know_ that she is authentic, we _believe_ in every word, every precious syllable, she utters. But how is it, exactly, that so many of us come away from her music so profoundly convinced? Whence comes this felt certainty that her passion is genuine and pure, that she isn’t just a modern Meat Loaf, but really the actual embodiment of boundless human sympathy, the elusive and ephemeral forest spirit who, as Oscar put it, _feels_ life, and feels it both deeply and rightly?
How do we know? Anecdotally, there’s the quote that Oscar cited with regard to the vocal cord nodes, when Newsom “was constantly telling [herself], don’t feel, don’t feel, don’t feel,” to prevent herself crying and thereby damaging her voice. There’s also the intriguing mystery of her romance with Bill Callahan, AKA Smog, creator of such stoic sonic treasures as “Rock Bottom Riser” and of music in general that evinces the same heartfelt sincerity we are wont to ascribe to Newsom. But our instinctive belief in her passion is not derived from sundry anecdotes. No—we simply hear it in her voice.
In _Have One on Me_, we hear it at almost every moment of the two hours, and it is perfect, liberated, majestic, riveting. As Oscar related, Newsom’s singing has come a long way since _Milk-Eyed Mender_, and she wastes no time in demonstrating as much: from the first second of opening track “Easy,” her voice begins the quavering, fluty dance it maintains throughout the album. Newsom uses the 18 tracks to explore the full range of her emotions, and a truly staggering range it is; from its early coziness, through its various intoxicating crescendos and its stiller moments of sadness, nostalgia, serenity, or lullaby, the album shifts like some exquisite weather pattern, with Newsom as the pale, benevolent goddess who both conjures the storm and conducts us safely through it, leading us gently by the hand.
Indeed, it is the incredibly intimate nature of the album that makes it so completely inappropriate to place it anywhere on some damnable numeric scale. More than ever before, it seems that Newsom is speaking directly to the listener: she whispers “darling” in our ears and it seems no other lips could ever deserve to pronounce the word; she sings of her belief in everyone (an alternative candidate, when you hear how she sings it, for defining lyric of the album: “I believe in everyone/I believe, regardless/I believe in everyone,” from “’81”) and we realize how very far above critics and criticism she is, as a spiritual being who sincerely considers closeness to the earth, to nature, one of her very highest priorities. And of course, she sings endlessly of love: from “Who died, and made you in charge/of who loves who?” (in “Easy”) to “The phantom of love/moves among us at will” (in “Esme”), Newsom contemplates from every angle the lack of say we have over who we are and what we feel. In fine, with brave, poignant soul-confessions on every page of the lyric sheet, we can’t help but think of Newsom more as a human being worthy of actual love than an artist worthy only of admiration—and we do not assign letter grades to the people we love, _Entertainment Weekly_. Especially A-minuses, which are just _designed_ to be insulting.
Let us now tour, very quickly, very briefly, through _Have One on Me_ itself. Having listened to virtually nothing else since its release on the 23rd, I feel able to guide the curious listener to certain moments that reward extra attention.
The album opens with what is perhaps its most irresistible track, the already mentioned “Easy.” Every fan of Ys, I think, felt an ecstatic thrill at that first flute trill—it comes at 3:13, you know it when you hear it—reminiscent as it is of Van Dyke Parks’ incredible orchestration. But “Easy” proves, of course, that it isn’t Parks who ensures that Newsom’s compositions are beautifully arranged.
The third track, “’81,” is one of the prettiest songs Newsom has ever recorded. It’s just the angel with her harp; Newsom well knows when additional instrumentation would only weigh a song down. “Good Intentions Paving Company,” an upbeat barroom piano number and the first single from the album, has been very warmly received. What most critics fail to mention is that the outro, with the subtle introduction of that sweet, sweet trombone, makes the song.
“In California” is the best arrangement on the album, and very possibly the best song; certainly it is the centerpiece, considering that it appears halfway through the second disc, and the final track of the album is its refrain. At 5:30, when the song really picks up and Newsom speaks breathlessly of being unable to fall asleep, of fully abandoning any thought of anywhere but home—“Sometimes I can almost feel the power”—one feels, as much because of the lyrics as of the judicious use of timpani thunder rolls, that one is on the verge, on the verge—and then, at about 6:45—that sudden swell!—I swear to you, friend, the album is worth buying if only for that moment. I don’t want to describe it further lest I diminish the glory of that first listen.
“Jackrabbits” is perhaps the track most likely to win a tear from the staunchly masculine eye. “Go Long,” another track warmly received by critics, features Newsom playing three harps (having layered them in the studio—she only has two hands) and producing a sumptuous sound describable only as “glittering rain.” In “Soft as Chalk,” a bluesy piano ballad, there is hot danger in her voice when she shouts, “There is only lawlessness!” And during the jazzy breakdown at the very end, her trembling voice trails away over the choppily descending piano chords like a candle flame fighting desperately for its last moments of life.
In tracks like “Autumn,” and throughout the album, the subtly humming instrumentation comes across exactly like an extension of Newsom’s own voice. It is not intrusive, it does not steal the spotlight, it does not distract in the slightest from her exquisitely expressed emotions. As a whole, the instrumentation on the album is nothing more or less than the sonic complementation her poetry requires to be properly understood. Albums like this remind us that art can have a purpose higher than mere entertainment or self-expression: Newsom_ communicates_ with the listener with an indescribable immediacy, a warm, convincing intimacy that just can’t be found anywhere else in music right now, darling.
And so it is a very sad moment when, at the end of the album, Newsom begins packing up to leave. In the last track, “Does Not Suffice,” she sings literally of packing up her dresses, coats, and shoes, her buttons, silks, and jewelry—for “It does not suffice, / to merely lie beside each other, / as those who love each other do.” Love passes, albums end, so it goes, _c’est la vie_.
As a truly dense album, the beauty of _Have One on Me_ can only be unraveled gradually, and Newsom, who is never going to stop being told that she is one of the greatest songwriters of her—our—generation, will be riding the slow wave of its fuller and fuller appreciation for a long time to come. It is too early to say whether, after a closer tarrying with the lyrics, obvious thematic distinctions will come into focus between the three discs. It may be that no such sharpness develops, leaving the album more a two-hour caress of the eardrums than a story with eighteen separate chapters. But if it takes me a decade or two to decide these questions, all the better, for it was clear to me from the first listen that Newsom’s latest and greatest gift deserves a permanent, eminent place in the soundtrack of our lives.