I’ve talked a lot about pop-culturey stuff on this blog, so perhaps one way to ease into a somewhat different kind of normal is to talk about it from an angle I rarely do: music.
A little over a decade ago, I picked up Joanna Newsom’s indie folk album, Ys on a recommendation. In the abstract she had some points in her favor: she played the harp, had a prog-rocker’s sense of compositional overreach, and penned the sort of lyrics an overeducated English major would write. It didn’t stick the landing, though. In large part because the music on Ys tended to resist anything like dynamism, and to an extent the lyrics just seemed too buried under inscrutable allegory. The whimsical Van Dyke Parks orchestration only underlined just how mannered the thing felt.
But I started giving it a listen again about a year ago, and it clicked with me a bit. I’m not quite sure what’s changed; perhaps the ensuing years have made me more amenable to music that sounds like a partially-sedated Edmund Spenser reading. Anyway, it inspired me to check out her followup 2010 album, Have One On Me, which is what this blog post is really about.
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.
– “On A Good Day”
Have One On Me is a triple album, and there is absolutely no justifiable reason for that sort of self-indulgence. Nevertheless, I love it, and it may even be one of my favourite albums of all time. A lot of my sentiments are probably just timing – I put it on for the first time in the summer of what has been a rather momentous year for me, and any work of art that vaguely spoke to me during that window is likely going to accrue some accidental symbolism in my life.
Anyway, the album is sort of about doomed romance. It’s bookended by songs (“Easy” and “It Does Not Suffice”) which are about falling in love, and breaking up, respectively. It’s a theme the songs return to every now and then as a baseline, while also finding ample time to oscillate out into thoughts about stuff like cattle rustling and the existence (or lack thereof) of God. Newsom’s lyrical obliqueness, although toned down from Ys, is still enough in effect to prevent the album from truly feeling confessional in tone, although there are moments where the mask seems to slip just enough to give a hint of personal tragedies and regrets, or where it comes across quite clearly as an artifice designed to create emotional boundaries around things which are too painful to be named. Which has the effect of making it more poignant than a less allusive, less artificial aesthetic would have.
The music drops most of Ys’s baroqueness in favour of somewhat more recognizable folk, blues and country fare, while still adhering to Newsom’s lack of interest in forward thrust and enthusiasm for lengthy tracks. Which all works to its benefit: when the idiom is more emotionally accessible, it turns out that her music is great at a sort of accumulated emotional heft. And when Ys peeks its head back in for the penultimate track, “Kingfisher”, it feels stately and summative rather than overblown. This is, if anything, the closest justification the album has for its epic length: it’s like a nighttime session of sustained, bittersweet introspection about one’s life and the choices that have led to this moment, perhaps with a drink poured.
All the same, if you were to say that Have One On Me is boring and soporific, that it doesn’t have enough musical ideas to sustain its epic runtime, I can’t really argue: it is a repetitive and languid experience. And sometimes her lyricism fails her (“I knocked against the jamb./ I scrabbled at your chest, like a mute/ with my fists of ham.”)
But it somehow works for me. Perhaps because of that tension between emotional earnestness and artifice, the attempt to make sense of one’s own experiences by shaping them into an elaborate aesthetic labyrinth (it’s probably not a coincidence that this year has marked a return to my own attempts at writing prose fiction). It’s right there in the almost jokey casualness of the album’s title and the fact that it’s three CD s long.