Joanna Newsom

Have One on Me
Drag City

Joanna Newsom

In an era when single-song downloads are dominating music sales, dropping a two-hour opus sprawled over three discs is probably the worst possible business decision. But if you’re holding your breath hoping Joanna Newsom is going to dumb it down so she can sell a few extra tracks on iTunes, you might as well exhale.

Have One on Me, the Nevada City singer/songwriter’s third album, isn’t just remarkable for its heft, but also for its craft. The album spreads 18 songs evenly over three discs with nary a chorus to be found. This is free verse poetry set to meandering, richly layered music, making this album an intimidating listen. However, those lucky (or brave) enough to immerse themselves in Have One on Me will be rewarded. Elegant string arrangements, spare percussion and Newsom’s virtuosity on her signature harp work in perfect concert with Newsom’s intimate vocal performance. Spend time with Have One on Me, and it will certainly spend time with you.

Newsom’s approach may be avant-garde, but her subject matter is familiar. Much of the landscape of the album is rooted in Northern California. The title track alludes to Irish-born dancer Lola Montez, for whom Mount Lola, the highest point in Nevada County is named; and “In California” references Milk Lake, also in Nevada County. In more general terms, subject matter treads the well-worn paths of love, God and death. But Newsom can paint even these commonplace themes in the freshest colors. In “Easy,” Newsom sings sweetly in an ode to a lover, “Honey, you please me/Even in your sleep,” before closing with the eerily endearing (or perhaps just plain eerie) lines “You must not fear/You must meet me, to see me/I am barely here/But Like a Bloody Mary/Seen in the mirror: Speak my name/And I appear.” “Ribbon Bows” struggles with questions of the divine. Newsom ponders, “God, No God. God, No God. Sweet appraising eye of the dog, blink once if god, twice if no god.”

Similarly, there are no easy answers on Have One on Me. Everything’s open for interpretation. Newsom’s lyrics sheet, wonderfully laid out in this beautifully constructed box set, has as many twists and turns as her music. It’s worth the extra digging to discover the roots of the songwriter’s more esoteric references—at the very least, Have One on Me could very well expand your vocabulary.

Sonically, the album shows a different side of Newsom. The pixie-led forest nymph found on her previous full-length Ys seems to have ditched the moonlit meadows for grittier environs. Songs such as “Soft as Chalk” and “Baby Birch” have more in common with Cat Power’s The Greatest than they do with pastoral poetry. And the change of tone has done Newsom well. There’s a directness and confidence in these tracks that provide real punch, ensuring that this lengthy album never becomes too wistful.

Not surprisingly, some of Have One on Me‘s most alluring moments occur when Newsom puts down the multi-instrumental arrangements and relies simply on her harp and voice. “’81″ is one such number on which Newsom makes measured, cascading rolls across her harp, singing in her alluring falsetto, “Meet me in the Garden of Eden/Bring a friend/We are going to have ourselves a time.“ Well, with an invitation like that, there doesn’t seem all that much to be intimidated by now, does there?