I’m still trying to figure out my feelings Joanna Newsom’s latest (triple!) album, Have One on Me. I certainly took to her first two more quickly. The Milk-Eyed Mender is more immediate, more joyous and filled with genuine (if mostly harp-based) pop songs. Ys is more orchestrated, more fantastic, more mystical, and despite the superior length of Have One on Me, more epic. Her latest seems the most grounded, the earthiest, and the least oblique of the three.
Two thousand ten was a weird year for music, for me, but only the latest in a series. Two thousand and eight found me struggling with its role in my life and taking a break from a lot of what I’d enjoyed over the previous few years. Two thousand and nine saw me trying to catch up on everything I’d missed in 2008, and 2010 felt like the year the dam broke: when the glut of music I wanted to take in fully overwhelmed my ability to do so. Enter the aforementioned album, which though it arrived early in the year, still made a presumptuously large claim on my already limited listening time.
I picked up the vinyl right around its release; six sides seemed like the ideal way to process such a quantity of song. But what I’ve learned through my foray into vinyl is that although it can provide a pretty great listening experience, it’s not ideal for the casual listening which, sadly, composes the bulk of my listening time these days. I gave it a couple listens, but it spent a lot of time sitting, along with my other LPs. I finally picked it it up on CD just recently.1
After the first, the early details of Joanna Newsom’s albums have seemed like awful cliches, potential disasters of Stonehenge-sized2 proportions. A heavily orchestrated album of five epic harp-folk compositions, with an average length over ten minutes? A triple album with most of the songs over six?3 In lesser hands, similar forms have proven unwieldy. However, Like Ys, Have One on Me shows Ms. Newsom fully capable of sustaining such weight. I’d be hard pressed to claim than any of her latest seems unformed, hastily arranged, or subpar. Still, I’m not quite sure how to process it.
Have One on Me seems Joanna Newsom’s most ordinary work, and in a way, I’m both drawn in and repelled by that aspect. The sincerity of emotion in her previous works has never been in doubt, but there was a sense of fancy that that seems missing, or at least subdued, in her latest. Earlier, I called this album earthy, but maybe “earthbound” is more appropriate. Of the three, it seems the most concerned with the domestic, the details of the day to day, with love, and with location. In a sense, I mourn the loss of the more colorful elements of her previous work, though there is a comfortable familiarity here.
And, as much as 2010 was unusual for me musically, it was even more jarring as a whole. I’ve grappled with the effects of disconnect, and felt a great deal of unsettledness as I’ve sought to pursue the things that truly move me. It hasn’t been easy, and the moments of peace have been few. I’ve longed for and even enjoyed brief moments of domestic simplicity, but they have been rare. Have One on Me feels like a respite. I was reading this post on dating bibliophiles earlier today when the following line grabbed me: “The world isn’t enough for us, so we need something more.”
I’m not going to fully explore this here, but the point is that I feel that way a lot, and one of the ways I address that is through music. I can momentarily satisfy a lot of these felt needs through the right words and/or melody. So the question becomes: how much of this is healthy? When does it become too much? When does does it pacify those desires, when does it stir them up, and which is better? The fact is, no matter how many “life-changing” songs I hear, the same desires remain.
I can’t pretend I’m completely cognizant of all the cause and effect, but I know there have been many times that a song has given me hope that the things that I’m feeling are real, that I’m not alone, and that it’s worthwhile to keep up the fight. The best parts of Have One on Me can do that. And that’s why, though I’m still digesting it, and there are parts I’m not sure that like, and I’ve spent more time with a number of other albums, I’m wondering if it might be my favorite from last year.
It’s not just the music and lyrics, either; it’s the sheer audacity to release a project of this magnitude, and succeed. There are others who did something similar in 2010; those are great albums, too. But I think it’s the universal normalcy of Have on One Me that I want, at the moment.
I wondered recently if CD sales have dropped so low that when I buy an album, the artist actually notices, and wonders who that person is. ↩
I understand the challenge of making size comparisons here. Not actual physical size, ok? ↩