Joanna Newsom ‘Have One On Me’ – Review

24 Mar

How can you possibly sum up such an ambitious, sprawling and daunting album in a 800 word review? Well you can’t effectively. To try to write about this three disc spectacular is in itself a pretty daunting task, and one I’m not even sure I can attempt yet as I’m not sure I have quite got my head around ‘Have One On Me’.

You see this is an album that spans three discs, many songs pass or approach the ten minute mark and all are stuffed with poetic lyrics that tackle vast amounts of themes and ideas. To truly understand this album, if it’s possible, would take years. Which raises the valid question – is it worth the investment of time?

The simple answer is yes. ‘Have One On Me’ is loaded with sublime moments that jump out at you all over the place. In the middle of the ten minute long title track there is a little moment where a simple acoustic guitar is all that backs Newsom’s lovely voice. It is even more effective as it follows some trumpets, flutes and other more obscure instruments. Moments like this are scattered around the eighteen tracks, and many only reveal themselves after repeated listens.

The legendary Van Dyke Parks arranged Newsom’s last album ‘Ys’  but this time she has handed the task to Ryan Francescon. Francescon does an equally brilliant job but in an entirely different way. His arrangements give the songs room to breath, they are less in your face than Van Dyke’s work on ‘Ys’. Because the instrumentation is less fussy, Newsom’s voice and harp are allowed space to move about, and as a listener you end up concentrating on the essential aspects of the music. It also means that you can recognize elements as subtle as a handclap which were often lost on ‘Ys’.

As jaw dropping as this piece of work is, it is one that is to be admired rather than truly loved. The musical sophistication on display here, not to mention the literary prowess of the lyrics, is surely unrivalled in popular music of recent years. However Newsom is almost too accomplished, to the extent that you feel a bit alienated from the music. Rather than being invited in by Joanna Newsom, I constantly felt distant as I was listening. The words are abstract and secretive and the music is just so ornate and fragile. If it were a physical object you would hardly dare touch it for fear of breaking it. The end result is that I never really conected with this on an emotional level.

I also started to wonder whether I liked it because I felt I should or whether this is genuinely an exciting, captivating record.  Not everyone can play the harp, or sing this well, or write such imaginative lyrics – the list of accomplishments could go on and on. So in a way it’s easy to belive that criticism is below her because this is such a technically accomplished record. How can you criticize someone so creative and talented? Surely you have to admire her? Well I did, but only at arm’s length. For all her skill Newsom still lacks the common touch, and the emotional impact of an artist like Joni Mitchell.

One area Newsom clearly is not talented at is editing. The majority of the songs on this album are far to long. That is not to put down her ability to create long, flowing numbers but too often these songs do not justify the great length. I would also argue that three discs is too much to intake as a single piece of work. At two hours long this album feels, quite predictably, too long. The sheer depth of the arrangements and lyrics simply wear the listener out far too quickly, and it would be a brave person who listened to this from start to finish. It’s much easier to be creative when there are no boundaries but it’s harder to make a concise, ambitious piece of work when there are limitations and I think this is something Newsom should recognize. There is no doubt at all that this would have been a much better album as a single, or even double disc.

Despite concerns about the length of the songs and the album itself, there are few songs you would call filler. Highlights include the opener ‘Easy’, the title track and the wonderful ‘Jackrabbits’. Each song is like a mini epic with no real choruses or traditional structure. Many of the tracks have a similar tone, and explore similar themes but each one has a distinct personality thanks to the variety of instrumentation.

“All these songs, when you and I are long gone, will carry on.” There is definitely a strong possibility that these songs will stand the test of time, and that this album will be remembered as a pretty special one. ‘Have One On Me’ is quite like no other album I can think of, at least not one that has been released in many years. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who require their music to be immediate. The delights of ‘Have One On Me’ are revealed over repeated listens, and during intense concentration.

Because of the delicacy of the sound it is easy to just listen to this as background music, and it would certainly make pleasant background music, but you would be missing out on its real joy. This is something to be savoured, sipped on like a nice wine. This would easily be a 9 if Newsom had got an editor because whilst her fans would welcome as much new material as she can provide, it is off-putting to newcomers to listen to something as long as this. Still, this is quite an amazing work of art.

8.5/10

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