Album: Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me (Drag City)
Ding dong the witch-child is dead! Make mine a triple
Sunday 28 February 2010
The first thing you notice is the voice. It was always this way with Joanna Newsom, but this time, in place of the instrument variously described as "witch-child", "a piercing flutter" and "untrainable" (that last one being Newsom herself), there is the sound of something sensitive, almost soft, a voice that won't jar or put off casual listeners; more Joni than Joanna.
Untrainable it may be, but if you are Joanna Newsom and you listen to Blue or Court and Spark long enough, you may well pick up the odd vocal trick: a way to make words waft away gently or runintoeachother; a way to go really low at the end of a line; a way to whisper/breathe meaning into poetry and abstraction.
All of this is present on Have One On Me, which (and this is something you will notice even before you get to the voice) happens to be a triple album clocking in at over two hours.
Can any piece of music sustain our poor, shot attention spans over this distance? Newsom couldn't care less. There is no attempt at a "concept", no effort to make the three discs different from each other. Instead, there are solo harp songs that will remind the listener of her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004). And there are fully orchestrated numbers that last for seven, eight or even nine minutes that call to mind Ys (2006).
It is a monumental work in more ways than one. "Good Intentions Paving Company", to use just one song to illustrate a point, is like a road movie of the mind that, in its seven minutes and two seconds, takes the listener into a car with Newsom and her partner. They are driving to a show and have "20 miles left". Over this distance, Newsom ponders her relationship to the man who is driving. "I did not mean to shout/ Just drive.../ For the time being all is well/ Won't you love me a spell/ There is blindness, beyond all conceiving/ While behind us, the road is leaving/ And leaving, and falling back/ Like a rope gone slack."
It is an epic song that ends, heartbreakingly, with Newsom admitting "I only want you to pull over/ And hold me/ Till I can't remember my name." And that's one song of 18. Will you last the distance? Only Newsom could make you even ponder such a thing.
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