Joanna Newsom, Somewhat Simplified
Joanna Newsom—the 28-year-old harpist and singer who once said that her then-favorite drink (raspberry-flavored Belgian beer) "tastes like unicorn tears," and whose 2006 sophomore album, Ys, opened with a 12-minute, flamboyantly orchestrated song containing the words "asterism," "hydrocephalitic," and "thee"—starts her third release, the two-hour-long triple-album Have One on Me, with the line, "Easy, easy, my man and me."
"Ease" is not a word I associate with Newsom's music, which I often listen to with undivided attention, and a dictionary. And "my man" is not a concept I associate with her persona, who treats the world as if it were about 99 percent magic and fully free of the sweet vulgarities that make life life—vulgarities like calling your partner "my man." Hearing those words come out of her mouth is like watching Snow White become Billie Holiday. But it'd be unfair to think that the world Newsom lives in is really any different from ours. If her fans are surprised—or disappointed, even—to learn that she eats cheeseburgers, or that her music is in HSBC ads, or that, as per a recent feature in Paper magazine, she quotes The Office in conversation and gets mani-pedis for fun—that's an unfortunate reflection on them.
Ys, though, was an album that sold such an obsessively crafted fantasy that I can understand why someone would be surprised to find out she's human at all. My understanding is that she was going through some personal tumult, which makes sense: Ys reminds me of the ways kids will take a truth they can't accept and dress it up until they can. Why settle for being heartbroken when you can be a heartbroken princess? Why use two words to say "I'm broken" when you can use enough to bury the feeling completely? On her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, she'd written with humor and eloquence about the gaps between art and life, or intuition and intellect—most memorably: "Never get so attached to a poem you forget that truth lacks lyricism." On Ys, I think she forgot.
Have One on Me is twice as long as Ys, but half as exhausting. Her songs are still winding and intricate, and she definitely doesn't spare the listener her imagination, but it's all tempered by space—in the music (where the arrangements once distracted from the beauty of the songs) and in the words (where they distracted from her sentiment). Ys hyperventilated; Have One sighs. Her voice—formerly, a brave little coo with intermittent breaks that sounded like air being let out from a balloon through pinched fingers—has rounded off and mellowed. And the music is now grounded by blue notes and hymns, with piano, banjo, mandolin, and other folksy instruments to balance out the orchestral sections. Most of the songs are still primarily vocal-and-harp, but she also plays a lot of piano—a nice break, considering that it sounds like she can't play the piano as well as she can play the harp. The simplicity is welcome: It reminds you of how much she can show off when she feels like it, and it lets the empathy in her songwriting shine.
Maybe most importantly, her lyrics are easier to follow and harder to tune out. Among the 1,200-plus words on Ys's "Only Skin" were "Dig a little hole, not three inches round/Spit your pit in the hole in the ground/Weep upon the spot for the starving of me/Till up grow a fine young cherry tree"—a request that would push even the most dedicated boyfriend to ask, "Do I have to?" Her effort was obvious and sometimes exhausting. (There were previews of this on Mender. Thoughts had about a mattress while trying to get to sleep: "Feathers flexing will defeat me/And it vexes me completely." Why?)
On Have One, she still surrenders to the beauty of words in long, overripe lines: "I roam around the tidy grounds of my dappled sanatorium/Coatless I sit/Amongst the motes, adrift." I'm not sure what it means for a sanatorium to be "dappled," or how she can be roaming and then sitting and then adrift again, unless it's the motes that are adrift. And even then, these lines feel forced and distancing compared to ones like, "I only want you to pull over and hold me till I can't remember my own name"—lines that ring, wallop, and require zero explanation.
With songs and lyrics that are easier to follow, she stands to gain a lot. Converts, primarily. When Mender came out in 2004, she was a curiosity: the daughter of two Californian doctors who started studying the harp at nine years old, nourished her musical talents at music camps, and spent two years studying composition and creative writing before dropping out and recording an album that does not sound like the work of an educated Californian girl, but like the whinnying of a gypsy, either eight or 80, who fell out of a hayloft and comforted herself with unconventional nouns. Now, she's an established entity and, depending on what neighborhood you live in, a household name. Recently, she talked about how she couldn't believe that people wanted to actually listen to her "weird fucking songs," but, apparently, success has bred confidence. Have One is the first time it doesn't sound like she's deliberately amplifying her idiosyncrasies—or, at least, the first album where it sounds like she knows she couldn't hide them if she tried.
Ys was arranged, recorded, and mixed by Van Dyke Parks, Steve Albini, and Jim O'Rourke, respectively—idiosyncratic studio guys who, at the time at least, overshadowed her. Conversely, I had to Google almost every name in the Have One credits. Most of them, it turns out, are from her touring band—musicians she presumably invited to the project out of comfort, not ambition. Her past bombast is also cushioned by shrinking her main accompaniment down to seven or eight people (the size of a big family), down from 30 (the size of a hired orchestra). She also produced the album herself, and it shows—not only does she sound more relaxed, she sounds more in control.
Have One was recorded primarily in California, from studios around the Redwoods down to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Clearly, California isn't a home to her, it's a concept: She talks about it in interviews, she writes about it in songs. On "In California," she goes as far as to identify with it: " 'Cause when you come and see me in California/You cross the border of my heart." The song is later reprised on "Does Not Suffice"—one of her old-fashioned ideals being that we listen to the whole album start to finish. When I first heard it, I thought the lines about packing up her girly ornaments—"everything that could remind you of how easy I was not"—were pledges for emotional revelation, for nakedness—for truth, I guess. Of course, in shedding this stuff, she has to name it: "Coats of boucle, jacquard, and cashmere/Cartouche and tweed, all silver shot." It sounded like every side of Joanna Newsom singing together in sour chorus: the burger-eater, the poetess, the pinup for boys too polite for pinups, the courtly lover, the road-tripper, the heels-wearer, the bookworm.
But later, I realized that the scene she's setting is more banal: She's cleaning her belongings out of a boyfriend's house. She ends the album by singing, "Everywhere I tried to love you is yours again and only yours"—a sentiment plenty complicated without an advanced vocabulary.
Joanna Newsom plays Town Hall March 18
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.