Three discs. More than two hours of music. A lyric sheet of six thousand, six hundred and fifty words. An average track length of seven minutes. Joanna Newsom clearly isn’t messing about here. So, is this the musical equivalent of War and Peace? Is it set to become the album that you tell yourself you should listen to, but never quite get round to doing so?
Not necessarily so. She’s made things relatively easy for the listener this time round: for the first few songs, at least. Unlike the complex, meandering linearity of 2006’s Ys, the six compositions on Disc 1 have regular internal structures, drawn from a familiar though wide-ranging array of sources. There’s nothing so obvious as verses and choruses, but there’s enough convention to deter casual listeners from running for the hills.
Easy begins as a dead ringer for My Old Man from Joni Mitchell‘s Blue, then settles into a speakeasy jazz-blues number. The baroque classicism of ’81 is as ordered as a Purcell suite: esoteric, but eminently listenable. Good Intentions Paving Company rolls along on a toe-tapping boogie-woogie piano line, and in places resembles a conventional pop song: it’s certainly the most accessible piece here.
From here on, we’re back into familiar territory for Newsom fans; and tantalisingly uncharted waters for the remainder of the human race. Discs 2 and 3 offer up 12 lengthy, irregular compositions: more like modernist poems than songs, in which her voice and harp or piano playing lead us, like blindfolded children, down unpredictable and unknowable paths.
Gone, though, is the strained imagism of Ys – no “mica-spangled mud-clouds” or “hydrocephalitic listlessness” here – and, in its place, a more immediate and engaging turn of phrase dominates. Coupled with unfussy, percussive harp and piano playing, her lyrics strike at universal human truths; goosebumps and lumps in the throat are the inevitable result. Witness In California’s “I am no longer afraid of anything / Save the life that, here, awaits”; or Esme’s “This is a world of terrible hardship / Everywhere / And I search for words / To set you at ease.”
Though Newsom’s voice – half six-year-old girl, half Appalachian old-timer – will inevitably still inspire peanut-allergy symptoms in some, she’s shaved off the roughest edges this time. The squeaks and squawks of her first two albums are all but absent: here she’s far closer to the tried-and-tested talents of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell.
The musical, verbal and vocal clarity allows a far deeper nuance of meaning to shine through. Though we’re still wading through a late-Victorian cavalcade of birds, bark-beetles, bears, spiders, frogs and daddy-long-legs, for the first time Newsom’s compositions appear to be about something emotionally graspable.
Go Long explores the insensitivity of men through the eyes of women, taking in both the visceralism of Plath’s Daddy and the fluvial list-making of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “With the loneliness of you mighty men / When your jaws, and fists, and guitars / And pens, and your sugarlip / But I’ve never been to the firepits / With you mighty men.” Or, “You are caked in mud / And in blood, and worse / Chew your bitter cud / Grope your little nurse.” Even on the page, this is terrific poetry. Set to Newsom’s precise, otherworldly harp playing, it’s sublime.
In Baby Birch, she pulls off a similar trick; handling her harp as a mournful, country-inflected lap-steel, she relates a heartbreaking tale of a mother and child reunited after a lifelong separation: “I will never know you / And at the back of what we’ve done / There is that knowledge of you.” Slowed to a funereal pace, it’s spine-tingling stuff.
Have One On Me is winding, long-winded, densely poetic, and often challenging; but never tedious or self-indulgent. Remarkably, there’s not a second of filler across its 125 minutes; but after the gentle first disc it demands the listener to suspend any desire for quick thrills. Much of it is muted, slow and uncoventionally structured. To talk of high and low points is beside the point, because the pieces aren’t performances as such, but are more like chapters in a book; and just as readers of a novel don’t usually compare chapter with chapter, so Have One On Me demands to be taken as a whole, each fragment a microcosm of the whole.
Set aside an afternoon, pull down the shutters and immerse yourself in it. You don’t have to like it all, or even process it all first time round. It might take a week, a month, or even a year for it to yield up all its treasures; but after only a week in its company, this reviewer’s instincts tell him that Have One On Me is a masterpiece.