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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.