A panoramic dreamworld
It’s still too early for grand pronouncements about 2010, but what the hell, let’s get saucy: Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me is the finest two-hour, harp-driven, three-disc opus of the year. Newsom—still your best possible icebreaker at a dinner party of hipsters, Renaissance Fair staffers and woodland creatures—released her last solo record, Ys, in 2006 to a response that ranged from gleaming to marry-me-I’m-begging-you. But if that sophomore album was a vivid glimpse into her weird little world, this sprawling sequel, conceived in flagrant defiance of conventional logic, is legitimately bananas. It’s like tumbling into her world and getting lost for weeks.
Devotees will thrill to Newsom (who produced the record, with Jim O’Rourke intermittently mixing) emptying her quiver of tricks here, and the results are indeed glittering. The title track is a serpentine fairy tale of harp, mandolin, piano and other elfin instruments. A jaunty piano opens the fantastically titled “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which briefly spirals off into diner pop. “On A Good Day”—at 1:48 long, an oyster cracker to the feast—is a near-perfect heartbreaker (“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”). “Soft As Chalk” erupts into a vaguely macabre production that would delight Tom Waits. Best of all is gossamer showstopper “Baby Birch,” which will shut down your world for nine and a half minutes.
The album is not for the fainthearted. It’s also not for anyone with a tendency to bristle at resolute self-indulgence. The uninitiated may wish for a shift in pace or room temperature (“Does this CD have any fast songs on it?” my son asked), and Newsom’s slippery voice remains all but impossible to grasp. But over the course of the album, a weird thing happens: Her flutters and flourishes become comfortable, even at their saddest, and her babygirl voice takes on a grand assuredness. It’s difficult to imagine another situation in which plinking pixie sounds, recurrent madrigal noises and radiant folk poetry could be categorically described as honking huge, but for all its girth, Have One On Me is packed with magic.