Remember when the story was all about her perplexing vocal sounds? Six years later and Joanna Newsom puts out a three-disc, two-hour magnum opus, and it’s the first absolutely essential release of the new decade. Ys arrived like a telegraph, and needed expert ears and/or a great patience to decipher, but in the first 10 seconds of Have One on Me, Joanna’s singing (on “Easy”) about “my man and me.” It may not be the first time Ms. Newsom has referred to herself in a song, but it’s the most direct and impactful that I can recall. That intimate start sets the standard for the album. Sure, the lyrics are still impenetrable at times, but mostly it feels like you’re listening to Joanna herself singing, and not a character she’s chosen for this incarnation.
That’s just one of the many kinds of songs that Newsom does so well on this album. There are also songs like “Jackrabbits,” “Autumn,” and “Kingfisher” that sound like ancient legends or love songs that she’s uncovered in a cave somewhere and transliterated for us from lost tongues. And then there are wonders like “Good Intentions Paving Co,” perhaps the most immediately and widely appealing song on the three LPs, but only one example of how she can actually get her groove on when she wants. Three minutes from the end of “Baby Birch,” the meditative mood is ruptured by a staggering drum figure as the background vocals fill out the suddenly propulsive arrangement. All Newsom really needs to swing, though, is a piano, as she readily proves on the bluesy “Occident.”
“No Provenance” is the first of several moments of total aesthetic arrest on the album. It’s another one of the Joanna Newsom songs with a strangely winding melody and an accompaniment so sparse the harp sounds lonely. Then she gets to the chorus and sings “in your arms, in your arms” as simply and plaintively as possible. Time stops and you can’t even think about things like appointments, traffic, or the internet. You just want to find the person making that noise and make sure she’s not alone. It’s that power and the ability to draw the listener in so incredibly close that the world at large fades away that Newsom deploys with incredible acumen and frequency throughout Have One on Me. And it makes this collection of artifacts a rare gift to all of us lesser, ever-listening mortals.