Monday, March 08, 2010

Enough To Get You Drunk

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me (Drag City)

Joanna Newsom seems to be one of those artists about whom writers are incapable of exercising nuance – she’s a polarising figure who has taken to making grand, indulgent and idiosyncratic works that demand to be either loved or hated. There’s little room for indifference. Looking back over my rather cursory review of Joanna Newsom’s last album ‘Ys’, I wasn’t quite as dismissive as I’d thought I’d been, but I did question the lack of perspective and distance deployed in criticism of the record. Music critics (mostly males it must be admitted) seemed to veer into rhapsodic swoons at Newsom’s unrestrained verbosity and the romantic sweep of Van Dyke Parks’ grandiose arrangements.

I’ve been a good deal more agnostic about Newsom. ‘The Milk Eyed Mendor’ had some endearing songs but was undermined by Newsom’s grating childlike whimsy. ‘Ys’, on the other hand, was a bizarre detour into a world of excess. With barely a moment free from the piercing sound of Newsom’s voice, certainly an acquired taste, it seemed to me oppressive and not especially likeable. It was rare to find a record rooted in conventional harmony and folk traditions that also sounded so confrontational and difficult.

‘Have One On Me’ sounds even more daunting on paper – more than two hours of Newsom’s music spread across three CDs! She simply does not know how to edit herself. In reality, though, it’s a much more accessible album than ‘Ys’ and arguably a more artistic one too. There are no Van Dyke Parks arrangements here, instead that responsibility falls to Ryan Francesconi, leader of Newsom’s touring band. The arrangements here are occasionally intricate, but always serve to complement or enhance the song. On five of the eighteen tracks, Newsom even forsakes the harp in favour of the piano. Most importantly, these factors combine to ensure that there is a great range in texture and dynamic that had been largely absent from ‘Ys’.

Also immediately noticeable are the changes in Newsom’s vocal delivery. Apparently she underwent surgery for vocal chord nodules last year – I’m not sure whether it’s this or a conscious decision that has prompted the greater restraint. She now sings with a much greater depth of feeling, poise and soulfulness. Sometimes the delivery is so subtle it’s almost ghostly, a big contrast from Newsom’s previous tendency to impose her personality with unwavering intensity. She still sounds quirky, for sure, but now far more naturally so and much less irritating as a result. There’s also much greater attention paid to phrasing, and there are fewer moments when Newsom seems to be forcing her flighty lyrics to scan. The squeakier, less controlled side of her voice threatens to re-emerge on the third disc, but it sounds more surprising as a result of her control elsewhere.

Newsom also displays a penchant for direct and simple melodies here, as well as her gradually unfolding, lengthy linear narratives that will be familiar to devotees of ‘Ys’. The uncharacteristically concise ‘On A Good Day’ resembles a hymn and elsewhere it sounds as if Newsom might be crafting her own traditional folk songs or nursery rhymes. This is not a criticism – a lot of these songs have direct and clear charm. On much of ‘Have One On Me’, Newsom appears to have developed the artistry and self belief to be simple but not simplistic. It’s pretty clear that she herself recognises the difference.

There’s so much material here it’s hard to know where to start. The most striking tracks are those that present the clearest sense of departure for Newsom. There’s the gently rolling road song ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’, on which Newsom sings with a chorus of her band members, phrasing the vocals in line with the song’s harmonic rhythm. It’s light and bouncy but, for those used to Newsom’s harp and voice based performances, also curiously strident. It also takes a completely unexpected twist into romantic territory as Newsom realises that the long journey has to end somewhere. The song is driven by Newsom’s basic piano style, not unlike Dylan’s untutored gospel touch on ‘New Morning’, and by the limber, creative drumming of Neal Morgan.

Similarly impressive is ‘Baby Birch’, which begins as a plaintive, gospel tinged ballad but gradually builds a delicate momentum, punctuated with bursts of electric guitar. What is most striking here is that, in contrast to pretty much all of ‘Ys’, ‘Baby Birch’ is full of space and calm – moments where Newsom no longer feels she has to browbeat us with linguistic or musical clutter. She has the confidence here to let her ideas unfold slowly and gracefully.

There are many tracks that take off where ‘Ys’ left off. They begin with Newsom alone with her harp, or have her accompanied by a string or woodwind section, and feature dense, sprawling fantasies brimming with alliteration. Disc three probably presents the more challenging of these rapturous fantasias, including the uncompromising, exaggerated ‘Esme’. Perhaps the most successful example is the extraordinary ‘Go Long’, during which no lyrical conceit seems too bizarre or wild for Newsom (she is carried in on a ‘palanquin’ made from the naked bodies of many beautiful women). Her disconcerting intensity is softened, however, by a spine-tingling integrated mesh of harp and kora.

Indeed, the instrumentation throughout hints at a wider range of influences, many of which add texture, depth and nuance to Newsom’s idiosyncratic visions. Andrew Strain’s trombone is a particularly welcome presence, adding warmth and a hint of New Orleans to ‘You and Me, Bess’ and ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’. Newsom’s piano playing, slightly untutored and unsophisticated, has something of the gospel-infused urgency of Dylan’s piano playing on the still underrated ‘New Morning’. The closing ‘Does Not Suffice’ is therefore unexpectedly soulful. The hints of Eastern musical flavours on ‘Kingfisher’ are similarly unpredictable and charming. Newsom’s range on ‘Have One On Me’ is broader and more inclusive.

Lyrically, there are still certainly moments when Newsom’s insistence on luxuriating in language leads to uncomfortable displays of verbose banality (‘her faultlessly etiolated fish-belly face’ on ‘No Provenance’ is a line that sticks out like a sore thumb). However, the overall impression left by ‘Have One On Me’ is that Newsom has balanced her expansive dreamy reveries with a new lyrical directness and self reflection. There’s the affecting pleas at the end of ‘Good Intentions…’ (‘I only want for you to pull over and hold me, til I can’t remember my own name’) and Jackrabbits (‘tell me that I can love you again’), or there’s the preoccupation with the idea of home on songs like ‘In California’ or ‘Autumn’. Then there’s the celebration of drinking, not only confined to the extraordinary title track.

Given that I listened to ‘Ys’ only three times before giving up on it and confining it to the shelves, it’s entirely surprising just how much I’ve wanted to revel in the plethora of ideas and riches on display here. For anyone previously averse to Newsom, I recommend keeping an open mind – ‘Have One On Me’ is indulgent and extravagant for sure, but it’s also deeply touching and brilliantly imaginative. It’s the kind of record no-one else would dare to make. The question, of course, is where she could possibly go from here – one hopes it doesn’t all result in a dreadful hangover.

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