10 of 2010 (#1): Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
Pay attention: it's hard – when there are photos, graphics, animations, videos and flashing coloured boxes, links to definitions and further reading and green cards and prizes, pages left and right and a billion others nearby, comments to make and songs to hear, hot new bands and unknown cult heroes and trends and friends and not enough time – to focus.
On one thing.
Until its end.
Without jumping away.
We apparently have to hand more information about the last eight years than about the preceding fourteen billion, because every new second spawns gigabytes of data: every sparing thought is a status, comment or tweet, every idea a blog post, every sight a photo, every sound a song, every song a dozen videos and on it goes. It's impossible to keep up with all this... everything, but we try. Multi-tasking is the new relaxing. We’re over-stimulated by unlimited content from an over-populated planet. Nothing sustains; it’s next, next, next, next.
At no point in the history of recorded music has a triple-album been a good idea, but especially not this point in history. It's just too long. Less is more, Joanna. Doubles are already pushing the limits. It just shows you don't know how to edit yourself, Joanna. To an iPod shuffler, filler is the biggest crime of all, and triple albums are serial offenders. To a multi-tasker, patience is an anachronism and subtlety a hindrance. A triple album by Joanna Newsom!? Next!
Have One On Me, astonishingly, wouldn’t be improved by editing. It's truly a first: a triple album that justifies its entire length. With Joanna Newsom, more is more.
After the elaborate fantasia of Ys, Have One On Me is comparatively straight-forward: instead of sinister pacts between runaway animals, here we have songs about the familiar twenty-something concerns of love and relationships, beginning with a blissful announcement of new love and ending with a sorrowful admittance of loves failure. But it's not an easy listen: her voice, modified after a throat injury, is still to newcomers thin and affected; her arrangements are sparse and delicate, her melodies subtle to tease out; her lyrics, more direct than before, are still shrouded by erudite poetry. And – did I mention? – it's more than two hours long. Have One On Me is not casual listening. It pays to pay attention to it.
Joanna Newsom is a dazzling lyricist, in both the positive and negative senses of "dazzling", but now almost wholly in the positive. On her first album, she sang "never get so attached to a poem you forget the truth lacks lyricism" and duly remained so attached. The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys were full of beautiful lines, but lots of them were impossible to parse; Have One On Me is full of beautiful lines, but few are pure show, and many more lay their truths bare. In Good Intentions Paving Company she develops the story with wonderful phrases like “It had a nice a ring to it, when the old opera house rang, so with a solemn Auld Lang Syne, sealed, delivered I sang"; then she delivers a sucker punch at the end with the plain appeal “I only want for you to pull over and hold me 'til I can’t remember my own name.” Those moments hit right in the gut, because they're a reminder that emotions don't wait for the mind to articulate them. Joanna Newsom is meticulous, but her heart is not.
As carefully as she places each syllable, she places each note. There's not a gramme of fat on Have One On Me. Esme, 81 and On A Good Day are entirely solo, just Newsom and her harp. Baby Birch and Go Long feel just as sparse, every slow string twang allowed to live its full life to create an incredible intimacy. Then jaggedy guitar slaps burst through the former, a heavenly kora rains down in the latter, and they both very gradually build to stirring conclusions. In California, one of the album’s most beautifully frail songs, has 14 credited performers, unbelievably, as does the title track, which develops over its eleven minutes with quite staggering dexterity. Some players shuffle in for a brief flourish and then vanish; it's sufficient. No silence is filled without reason, no solo supported without cause.
Have One On Me stands out in 2010 because it's stimulating art, not just stimulation. Music and technology are moving towards convenience as a common goal, but Have One On Me is not convenient, it’s a challenge. The vast availability of music to the modern listener promotes a box-of-chocolates approach – many flavours, tasted briefly – but Have One On Me defies brief sampling, requiring many listens to reveal all its charms. Scenes and fashions can often be relied upon to flesh out a musician’s image or ideas, but there's no scene or fashion supporting Have One On Me. It’s a unique and uncompromising album, and in the age of tl;dr, that makes it a totem for the independent artistic ideal.