Album review: Joanna Newsom – ‘Have On On Me’ (Drag City)

Joanna leaves fantasy behind and enters the real world for three discs and two hours

Until now [a]Joanna Newsom[/a]’s only new song committed to tape in almost four years was ‘Colleen’ on the ‘Ys Street Band’ EP, where she sang, “I tilled and planted, but could not produce/Not root nor leaf, nor flower, nor bean, Lord!/It seems I overwatered everything”. Three discs, two hours, 18 tracks and a dose of inspirational Miracle-Gro later, and it seems her garden has produced bounteously, potentially overgrowing its borders.

Unexpectedly, though, there doesn’t seem to be a unifying story branching through the three parts, though each disc contains its own songs of profound sadness, uncontainable desire and the occasional piano bluesy knees-up. Her old favourite lyrical tropes – spiders, bones and rivers, motherhood and mortality – still illuminate the way like native Indian pathfinder symbols.

Perhaps the most strikingly odd thing here (in a menagerie of oddities) is that for the most part, she’s stepped out of her fantastical world of catenaries, dirigibles and spelunking into a more human realm, lyric and imagery-wise. Although ‘Ys’ was about four pivotal events in her life, they were cloaked in sprawling fables; complex allegories that betrayed very little of the fact that their author was an actual human as opposed to a fairytale creature. Here though, some of the prosaic details and unabashed longing are almost alarming in comparison, more naked and at ease to breathe among Ryan Francesconi’s looser arrangements, free from the ornate baroque corsetry of Van Dyke Parks’ work on its predecessor. It’s hard to say whether they’re better or worse for it, but ‘Have One On Me’ certainly brings her voice and story back to the fore.

For the most part, this is a terribly sad record, full of never-mawkish ballads that affect and still absorb with simple expression and a hundred different nuances of voice – an instrument that she’s learned to control as artfully as she does her harp. Final track ‘Does Not Suffice’ narrates her packing to permanently leave a lover’s house, ‘Jackrabbits’ recovering from a period of drunken sorrow to love again, but most affecting of all is ‘Baby Birch’.
With its devastating maternal lament of “This is the song of Baby Birch/Oh, I will never know you”, sparse, resonant harp and raw shards of electric guitar, it hauls gobstopper-sized lumps up to the throat that stick around for ‘On A Good Day’. “I saw life and I called it mine/I saw it drawn so sweet and fine/And I had begun to fill in all the lines/Right down to what we’d name her”, she sings, its two-minute brevity recalling Ernest Hemingway’s fabled six-word micro-story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

It’s only ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ that really breaks the reverential tone, swinging like a party of banjo-wielding hooligans invading New York’s Brill Building, and featuring some of the record’s canniest lyrics: “And I regret, I regret/How I said to you, ‘Honey, just open your heart’/When I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar”. Evidently, Newsom doesn’t record natural successors, but this would have made sense as a matured follow-up to her 2004 debut album ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’, distilling her lyrical trickery and polarising kook into an untouchable realignment of conventional song structure.

In an interview discussing ‘Ys’, she said, “It’s important to say what you need to say as accurately and truly
as possible, but with as few words as possible as well.” With 18 songs here, the chances of them all being essential were slight – some are a little aimless or cloying, like ‘No Provenance’ where she banally repeats the desire to be “in your arms” – but after a limited amount of time in ‘Have One…’’s company (perhaps mindful of ‘Ys’’ untimely leak, Drag City were a little cagey with review copies), its less verbose lyrics haven’t stopped well over half the songs from exploding ripe with ingenuity, beauty and emotional resonance. Most bands don’t make that many great songs in their whole darned career, and chances are that the remaining few might eventually shine through as talismans for certain fixes. It’s unlikely that you’ll often listen to it in one bout, but whether beguiled one day by its exotic petals and blooms or the next by the less showy trees in the background, ‘Have One On Me’ is
an Elysian record that you’ll return to again and again.

Laura Snapes

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Click here to get your copy of Joanna Newsom’s ‘Have One On Me’ from the Rough Trade shop.