Have One On Me
124 min • Drag City • March 1st, 2010
Music, as the Princess of Darkness once observed, makes the people come together. It also divides people. Joanna Newsom is a performer whose music draws that proverbial line in the sand. In writing about Newsom critics are wont to use the word “polarizing”. One of the reasons for this is that she is decidedly not commercial. Have One On Me is her third studio album, and the eighteen tracks, which clock in at a gargantuan one hundred and twenty-four minutes, defy simple classification. The songs are in effect short stories and are consequently rather longer than usual for the medium. The composition is shaped around the rhythm of the stories, which do not settle into the groove, progress toward a bridge … etc. Have One On Me is unique, unusual and remarkably beautiful.
Newsom is a harpist, pianist and poet. Her earlier work tended toward a contemporary folk sound. Critics tended to place her in the psych folk box. Have One On Me is a departure from this. For a start, Newsom’s voice has matured. The songs are also more succinct than on the previous album, the five-track fifty-five minute Ys. Yet one thing remains the same: it is difficult to write about her music without using words and phrases guaranteed to make the uninitiated scarper. To call her a singer-songwriter-storyteller, a modern Troubadour, just sounds pretentious. And there is nothing pretentious about Have One On Me. Unless, of course, you’ve got a chip on your shoulder about anything clever.
How, then, should one effectively review such an album? Listening to music is, to begin with, a highly subjective experience. The effect of music on the workings of the mind involves a confederacy of both rational and emotional associations. That means it’s time for “the science bit”.
In his book This Is Your Brain on Music, the neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin describes how music “taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward and emotion” as well as the higher functions of the conscious mind. “The story of your brain on music is the story of an orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and frontal lobe behind your eyes.” What this effectively means is that the appreciation of music is both primal and intellectual at one and the same time.
The scientific study of how the mind responds to music has revealed that the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates mood and controls coordination, can be controlled by music. So far so good. That is after all only the scientific reasoning for the obvious: that music has the capacity to move us both emotionally and physically. On Have One On Me Newsom demonstrates an uncanny ability to manipulate this process in an unpredictable and creative manner. The unique construction of the songs is so rich and multilayered as to evoke an equally complex response. She pulls the listener through the twists and turns of the stories she is telling.
Take the first track, ‘Easy’. It starts with vocal and strings, with the piano adding further depth; then as she builds toward the lyrics “I was born to love you, I intend to love you” the percussion and the double bass underline the strength of the words. This then falls away and the song is stripped back. For the rest of the track the collective instruments appear as and when they are needed.
On ‘Baby Birch’, Newsom starts out with a harp arrangement, and it is only more than six minutes into this nine-minute track that percussion, guitar and mandolin start to influence the story telling. She knows exactly when to pull back, and use a process of give and take to control the emotional impact of the song.
There are many stand-out tracks, from the hypnotic ‘In California’, throughout which the use of the harp is peerless, to the upbeat ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’, which is injected with soul and bluegrass. What is even more remarkable is how consistent this constantly changing eighteen-track album feels.
Have One On Me is issued as a triple album. Dividing it into three CDs was an astute move, even when it would have fit comfortably onto two. Newsom has said that it is divided “in terms of morning, noon and night, although that wasn’t the concept when the album was written but the way that the narrative progresses”. It may be something of an illusion, but the division veers away from the danger of it feeling too dense or, as critics tend to whine about albums longer than forty-five minutes, too ambitious.
In the heady days of X-Factor and the Glee soundtracks, as well as a surfeit of product that navigates little more than the showy surface, Newsom is all the more remarkable. The music industry is notorious for eating its young, and weighing heavy on the side of the decidedly commercial. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with commercial music but simply that music is too rich a medium to confine to the strictly commercial. The industry as a whole should run the gamut of emotion from A to Z, not A to B, to appropriate a phrase from Dorothy Parker. It should bridge the gap between a book by David Mitchell the comedian and David Mitchell the novelist, between the X-Factor Live Tour and Glyndebourne.
“I’m a runaway from the record biz/ From the hoods in the hood and the whiny white kids,” Joni Mitchell sang on the 1998 track ‘Taming the Tiger’. That is Joanna Newsom. Have One On Me is an assured and dazzling achievement. It is so rich that, in some ways, listening to it feels like falling in love.
Joanna Newsom, ‘Soft as Chalk’ from Have One On Me Live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon