On the Stereo: Joanna Newsom, 'Have One On Me'

Posted by on Feb 24, 2010 | Comments (6)

When I was younger and prone to making grandiose claims based on whim and late-night conversation, I theorized, as teenagers do, that all love between two people must eventually run out of perpetual motion and die. The only problem, I thought, was that one person always notices it before the other.

Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me is a long, tedious breakup album disguised as an “epic” breakup album, and for a lot of reasons, mostly musical, I can’t like it so far. (Context: I think Milk-Eyed Mender is total genius.) I listened to all two hours of this new record, in its plodding, turgid, formless non-glory, twice in a row. Then I opened the lyric booklet and listened again.

“On a Good Day” is such a wonderful piece of poetry that I have to quote it in full:

Hey hey hey, the end is near!
On a good day,
you can see the end from here.
But I won’t turn back, now,
though the way is clear;
I will stay for the remainder.

I saw a life, and I called it mine.
I saw it, drawn so sweet and fine,
and I had begun to fill in all the lines,
right down to what we’d name her.

Our nature does not change by will.
In the winter, ’round the ruined mill,
the creek is lying, flat and still;
it is water,
though it’s frozen.

So, ‘cross the years,
and miles, and through,
on a good day,
you can feel my love for you.
Will you leave me be,
so that we can stay true
to the path that you have chosen?

(The only problem, I thought, was that one person always notices it before the other.)

“On a Good Day” is one example of why people are saying that this is a more “accessible” record than Newsom’s first two, and I get what they mean, i.e. everyone can relate to heartbreak lyrics. But heartbreak lyrics are everywhere. I assert that a huge contingent of her fans loved Milk-Eyed Mender precisely because they couldn’t relate to the lyrics. Milk-Eyed Mender was such a left-field Oxford-English-Dictionary masterpiece, begging to be analyzed and untangled—and deciphering that puzzle brought a lot of people together (“Sadie is a dog?!”).

For most of Have One On Me, the songs feel unnecessary, their only purpose to fill space, like bad food. I appreciate the way it was recorded—uncompressed, and very “live” sounding—but very little of it compositionally jumps out as vital. Is that the point? “I am so deflated by love’s death that I can only wheeze?” If so, indulgence (!) and the Joni Mitchell comparisons can stick. Tiny little blues inflections creeping in to her phrasing, too, another sign of caution, though owed more to we’ll-have-a-time Hank Williams.

There’s just no valid reason for Have One on Me to be as long as it is, and if making a tape for the car, I’d whittle it down to…

Good Intentions Paving Company
On a Good Day
In California
Soft as Chalk
Does Not Suffice (In California, Refrain)

…mostly for thematic reasons. For the last song on the entire set, the magnificent “Does Not Suffice,” a gigantic death-ending closes the album after the warmest Newsom gets to a fuck-you stanza; it’s refreshing because she plays the innocent what-went-wrong I’m-so-confused role the rest of the time (the female role, tiredly, that fits most listener’s narratives of a breakup album by a woman). Finally, she fights back and walks out amongst predatory noise. Bonus track would be “’81,” because of its melody. Other than that, what went wrong? I’m so confused.

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  1. Dean
    February 25, 2010

    Bummer. Being one of maybe five people who didn’t seem to captivated or impressed by Ys’s preposterously epic bullshit, I was really, really hoping that this one would maybe bring back a little of the magic, musical simplicity and charming (instead of pretentious) lyrical weirdness of Milk Eyed Mender. I can’t listen to Ys without feeling like Joanna’s just trying way to hard to be the cleverest person on earth, and it sounds like this one is in the same vein (other than the more accessible lyrics). But I guess the first time I heard it was going to be a triple-album a few weeks ago was fair warning.

    Thanks for the review, Gabe.

  2. Sara Bir
    February 26, 2010

    I just happened to be streaming “Have One on Me” through Oregon Public Radio’s site as I read this (oh, what a revealing statement.) Damn, this thing is effing long. “Ys” felt longer than it was, but its indulgence was at least on its sleeve. Remind me never to break up with Smog.
    But I still like her.

  3. Chris
    February 26, 2010

    Jo is brilliant. She may not feel everything deeper than anyone else. But she is able to describe the experience better than just about anyone I know. I’ve listened to the album five or six times by now, and I’ve cried through a good deal of the album each time. Jo is brilliant, and I’m happy to have her around.

  4. Me
    March 4, 2010

    Screw you. You obviously listened to the album while formulating your little review in your mind. You don’t understand how good her music is, and you never will.

  5. Ragnarsson
    March 9, 2010

    Respect the review but have to disagree. Everything she does is listen-worthy. Next time you have a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do: Take a puff, make some coffee and get lost in the music, maaaaaaan. Joanna, not a person in this world like you, baby.

  6. Dean
    April 4, 2010

    After a few more listens, and the context of some majorly bad personal shit happenin’, I’ve totally changed my opinion of this album. While I still think it’s too long, and some of her affectations are overkill, it’s just so damn beautiful, and I think it packs a decent amount of emotional power.


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