Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Joanna Newsom’s monstrous ‘Have One On Me’ feels like work, doesn’t justify its incredible length

Joanna Newsom’s third album, Have One On Me, is a behemoth. It’s a ’70s-style triple album, in the spirit of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass: one that spans over two hours across its three discs and 18 songs, many of which break the eight minute mark. Its songs are dense, sprawling and rarely willing to cede their secrets on first listen, and start-to-finish it’s among the hardest listens one can opt for this year.
Almost all of Have One On Me‘s challenge comes as a consequence of its length. Her music is less idiosyncratic than ever before; it’s still uniquely, undeniably hers, but it sounds like a deliberate attempt to downplay certain elements that once defined her: her backwoods pixie image, her warbling voice, even her use of the harp: and a leap headfirst into the world of confessional ’70s singer-songwriters. More than one critic has made mention of Joni Mitchell’s legacy, and the piano-driven pop songs across all three discs make her a valid reference point, especially “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which sports some of Newsom’s most accessible playing yet and a stunning travelogue that totally justifies its seven-plus-minute runtime, which doesn’t happen often enough with these very long songs.
Like many records, but more than most others released so far this year, Have One On Me feels like work. Newsom’s new songs lack the sweeping, busy orchestral arrangements that Van Dyke Parks contributed to Ys, and in their place are parts written by her bandmate Ryan Francesconi, most of which consist of stop-start percussion, horns, occasional strings and guitar lines. Though some of these work well, others simply seem frivolous or merely contribute to the occasional bloat that makes these songs drag; the wonderfully-written “Baby Birch” is several minutes longer than it was when she first played it on tour in 2008, and the added weight simply makes the song as a whole significantly less interesting, as it’s swallowed almost wholly by negative space.
In spite of the album’s clearly-meticulous sequencing: it could have fit across two discs, but laid out as-is, it breaks very easily into six sides of vinyl: the best place to jump in could very well be the second disc, which is both the shortest and best-written despite its total lack of hooks. “In California,” which comes near the center of the entire set, is perhaps the best song here, and it’s one of the moments in which Newsom’s melodies and Francesconi’s arrangement complement each other perfectly. “Go Long,” the disc’s penultimate track, sports interplay between Newsom  and the strings surrounding her that jumps out immediately: one of the rare moments that overtly demonstrates what a strong player she is while featuring one of her most striking narratives.
This is a record in love with the sound of Newsom’s voice, in love with language and in love with songwriting like few records released this year. Its density is as much a barrier to entry as it is a statement against the quick consumption and rapid absorption of music that currently takes place, and like few records this year, it’ll take genuine patience, energy and time to dissect. Whether or not it’s a product of blatant indulgence or not, however, is still beyond my grasp.
View Comments (2)
More to Discover

Comments (2)

All Whitman Wire Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • A

    Amir ThompsonJun 5, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    That music is amazing!

    Reply
  • J

    JenniferMar 12, 2010 at 3:33 am

    Ooh, yes, there are songs on it that I’m really not sure about yet but I completely won’t be surprised if they are my FAVOURITE SONG on the album in about six month’s time. Good review, was wondering how all those others managed to come out with fully formed opinions so soon after it was released.

    Reply