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March 2, 2010

Newsom plays conductor to Have One on Me's multiple movements

Although it clocks in at nearly two hours, the problem with Joanna Newsom’s third album, Have One on Me, isn’t its length. In fact, it’s to the album’s credit that it doesn’t get boring at a running time almost three times the norm. The problem is, this album could be a lot of things, and throughout the ambling experience, the listener can never be quite sure what it is—Newsom’s always toeing the line between scenes, between genres, and between feelings. The album is unquestionably a fine piece of art, and Newsom is always in control of the shifting tides of the album. The question is: Does Have One on Me work as a cohesive whole?

When it comes down to definitions, Joanna Newsom is a harpist who plays folk music. Her genre-bending isn’t surprising with her mix of a high-aristocratic form and a low, populist affect. The best passages of the album are the complex, ornately-structured runs she takes on the harp that sound nothing like classical music.

The album feels like an operatic series of vignettes, maybe of a midnight walk through the countryside. Newsom dances forward, just a couple of steps ahead of the listener, but her odd, ever-changing, beautiful voice always keeps bursting onto the front before it ultimately fades into the landscape of sound. It’s almost as if the audience is on a revolving stage, having its attention directed to different landscapes: Renaissance fair, country festival, midnight garden, ballet. Newsom is not ready to give you one look, and when you finally feel like you’ve connected to the lyrics, the tempo speeds up and the next scene begins. After an hour of this, it’s easy to forget about the musician who’s supposed to be at the forefront of this wild orchestration.

Have One on Me never settles. Individual songs change tempo, key, tone, and ensemble a number of times. Take the title track: It begins as a slow, intimate harp-and-voice number, yet at 1:42, she brings that movement to a close. During the subsequent countrified section, her voice evokes the twang of the accompanying banjo. By 4:00, however, the predominant instruments are trumpet and bass drum, and it feels almost like a processional march. The song, which at 11:02 is the longest of 18 tracks distributed over three discs, is exemplary of the whole. It switches gears every two minutes, adding instruments until it comes to a climax, then dropping out, coming to another one, and cutting everything off except harp and voice again.

The only thing that ties the songs together, in fact, is Newsom’s virtuosic voice. Newsom is fond of letting her voice feel its way through the lyrics, not necessarily staying on beat but never letting it stray too far. She goes from trilling on one word, only to catch up to the harp on the next one, or the one after that. At times, it feels like a flowing brook; at others, it adopts the long drawl of an Appalachian accent, or even sneers. Her voice ranges in tone from legends like Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell to contemporaries like Regina Spektor.

But Newsom is capable of some startlingly touching passages, like the unsheltered “Baby Birch,” the last track on the first CD. For the first six minutes, it sounds like she is alone in a Dakotan field with her harp, the sound of a record player stylus the only thing between the listener and the artist. A tinny, overdriven electric guitar will occasionally crack through the scene as Newsom sings. Drums kick in for a minute or two, and a chorus laments along with Newsom. She seems, as she often does, to be taking on another character here, perhaps a mother singing to a missing child. And for once, the character carries through the whole piece, never winking or glancing away. The song’s raw beauty is startling, and its depth of emotions is palpable, perhaps most when she sings:

And if I die before I wake,

Will you keep an eye on Baby Birch

Because I’d hate to see her

Make the same mistake

Have One on Me isn’t about any one thing—there are disparate references to different types of popular music, and recurring references to animals. If the album works, it’s in no small part due to Newsom’s unbelievable voice and her uncanny talent for playing the harp gorgeously.

It’s fitting that the last we hear of her is more than one minute from the end of the final song, “Does Not Suffice,” before it disintegrates into steady, electronic pulsing, the only time technology is audible. Newsom’s voice drifts away while the instruments go as loud as ever, and she sings, “la, la la, la la…”. You’re left wondering, was she even there?