One of the indie-folk world’s most eccentric artists has released this year’s most ambitious project to date. Joanna Newsom’s latest release, Have One on Me, is an impressive three-disc effort that allows the musician to showcase her full range of talents. For Newsom, length works as a weapon rather than a weakness, as it gives her all the time and room she needs to make the most of her ability as a singer, harpist, pianist and storyteller. A majority of the tracks play out as narratives, full of symbolism and motifs with a richness and vibrancy that would impress an author.
Newsom allows her eccentricity to take over in ways that would make Regina Spektor seem ordinary. Her unorthodox harp-playing techniques are not utilized as extensively as they have been in the past, as she gives her minimalist approach to the piano more focus. However, both instruments blend well with her distinct, eerie vocals. Her lyrical strength comes in full, having been given more time to fully take advantage of her skill as a songwriter. The album’s best track, “’81” delivers an interesting narrative about innocence set in the Garden of Eden, with parallels to the Civil War. “Ribbon Bows” takes something as common as a love song and gives it a unique level of perspective and thought. Her honest lyricism stays in full effect for such individual lines as “I fell for you, honey, as easy as falling asleep.”
Listening to the album is no easy feat: The total play time of “Have One on Me” is over two hours, almost three times as long as your usual album. Each individual track is also long, with only four of the 18 songs falling below the six-minute mark. Two of the album’s standout tracks, “In California” and “Autumn,” are over eight minutes, but they do not come across as excessive. Musically, she maintains enough variation in energy and delivery to keep the music from wearing out. While this length takes away Newsom’s lyrical and musical inhibitions, it also limits the utility of her album.
With the richness of her songs’ stories and musical movements, this is the sort of album you could just sit down and listen to with full focus or think deeply about on a road trip. Unlike her past efforts, however, it is harder to take a song out of its context and place it in another playlist. Still, all in all, Have One on Me is a unique break from the singles-oriented modern music market.
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To fully appreciate Newsom’s sound, we recommend you pick up her previous album. While this artist has never been known for her accessibility, we have the feeling if you listen to something (comparatively) smaller — like, say, her dynamite 2008 effort, Ys.
Ys contains a mere five songs — for most bands, the equivalent of an EP — yet it clocks in at almost an hour of music. This sweeping, lush album produced by Steve Albini features full orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks (Brian Wilson’s usual collaborator), Newsom’s distinctive, child-like yodel of a voice and “Emily,” one of her best songs ever.
And, The Milk-Eyed Mender, her first album, features much shorter tracks, so if you’ve got a short attention span, this might be for you.