Better than Ys – a lot better.
The short description of this long album is that it combines The Milk-Eyed Mender’s pop sensibilities with Ys progressive ones.
For people who are wary about the length, it’s a triple album in the same sense that the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic or Vince Staples’ Summertime ‘06 are double albums; that is, these three albums all had runtimes that could fit on one less disc, but were spread out for conceptual reasons. And if you don’t believe my opening three words of this review, then maybe this will be more convincing: the single-disc album you make from Have One On Me is better than Ys – a lot better. (Cover’s a lot better too! In fact, the cover and the big package were convincing enough for me to buy it for my then-girlfriend even though I had no idea what was inside the music or who Joanna Newsom was at the time. I never gave it to her because I listened to a downloaded copy the next day and decided she wouldn’t like it. I regret that decision.) Anyway, here’s my playlist. It’s probably different than yours:
Easy – a revolving door of melodies and arrangements; each verse distinct (the first three verses go airy ballad to piano ballad to staccato string drama) that hands off to the next verse in a way that sounds natural.
Have One On Me – this one’s problematic, and emblematic of Ys problems too: it’s like a quilt of patched-together sections, but certain sections are so wonderful that it justifies the 11 minutes and patchiness: the rain-like harp arpeggios during the second verse; the sheer sound of “Here’s Lola – ta da! – to do / Her famous Spider Dance for you”; the scattering drums right after to sonically paint the picture of said Spider Dance; the melody of “Pretty papa, if you are my friend / Mister daddy longlegs, they are at it again!”
’81 – the shortest and sweetest song on the album excepting “On a Good Day” (a decent interlude that plays its hand in the opening seconds as soon as Joanna Newsom sings the title’s word the way she does). Love the dual melodies of her voice and the cascading harp; love the closing sentiment (“I believe, regardless, I believe in everyone”).
Good Intentions Paving Company – according to everyone else, this was the highlight of the album. Me? I think it’s one of them, but I’m not quite sure when the committee met to decide that this was the clear one or why I wasn’t invited to that meeting. My guess? Because it was released before the album (singles or promos are usually the ones to end up on year-end lists instead of album tracks, for obvious and dumb reasons) and the melody is fast and direct – in essence, this is a 7-minute pop song.
Baby Birch – she caps off the first disc with a sparse ballad. Slate’s Jonah Weiner describes this one really well in his review of the album:
”The song is about the crushing weight of an absence. Built around acoustic guitar and harp, it devotes almost as much space to the resonating aftereffects of notes as the notes themselves. Newsom’s lyrics seem to concern some departed child—a baby given up for adoption, perhaps, or maybe an aborted pregnancy. (Infants and motherhood are recurring motifs throughout the album.) In a cadence not far removed from “Amazing Grace,” and in a ghostly half-twang that suggests time spent in the low-lit company of Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton records, Newsom sings about a “baby” she “closed the door on” and “will never know.” The song builds gradually to a pained climax and a grisly image, which Newsom describes in clipped, direct language…”
All I have to add to that is the brief flickers of electric guitar clamor is used to great effect.
In California – cue the Joni Mitchell comparisons? This one’s frighteningly well-sung, especially the following lines: “But there is another / Who is a little older”; “I must stay here”; “But sometimes / I can almost feel the power / Sometimes I am so in love with you”; the entire verse that begins “I don’t belong to anyone / My heart is heavy as an oil drum.” A user named minincoal on Song Meanings noticed that the “cuckoo” breakdown of the end happens around the hour-mark of the album; definitely a cool detail that deserves mention, whether intentional or not.
Soft As Chalk – this was the first Joanna Newsom song I heard (I have a habit of not starting my books or albums on the first page or song – take that, purists), and I was drawn as soon as Joanna sings the word “Time” the way she does (“When time was just a line…”; “No time!”). Lovely use of dynamic shifts here, slowly building up to bigger and bigger ones, starting as a soft ballad, becoming heavier in the strengthened way she sings “Law-less-ness!”, to the unsure drums that enter of the following verse (“I roam around…”) that become more rhythmic on the next verse (“I feel you leaning…”) before the drums thunder in the climax and her voice doesn’t give any room to breathe (“While over and over, read up, stand down, lay round…”) – and that’s just the first half of the song. The words don’t mean anything to me: I’m not sure whether the simile “soft as chalk” is a good or bad thing, but the way she sings “I roam around the tidy grounds of my dappled sanatorium / Coatless I sit amongst the molds adrift and I dote upon my pinesap gum” – with all its oddball details – just sounds so good, that who cares?
Does Not Suffice – if not for Sufjan Stevens’ “Impossible Soul,” I’d call this the best closer of 2010: recalling the melody of “In California” (“And if you come and see me…”) and the lyrics of opener “Easy.” At the start of the album, Joanna Newsom sang, “I am easy … Honey, you please me / Even in your sleep” and by the end of the two-hour album, she emerges like the protagonist of a bildungsroman: “…how easy I was not … It does not suffice to merely lie beside each other / As those who love each other do.”
Further, it seems like Joanna Newsom’s response to Bill Callahan (former lover; formerly of Smog, but whose solo career is also richly arranged and picture-painting like Joanna’s)’s “All Your Women Things,” wherein the male narrator picked up the items left behind of an ex-lover. Here, the female narrator does all that for him before she says her last goodbyes.
The internal and external contexts are cool, but “Does Not Suffice” is a great song regardless: like “’81,” the arrangement is simple and the melody is gold but unlike “’81” (and the rest of the album and the rest of her career), the lyrics here are direct: “You saw me rise to our occasion”; “I have gotten into some terrible trouble / Beneath your blank and rinsing gaze”; “It does not suffice for you to say I am a sweet girl / Or to say you hate to see me sad because of you”; “I picture you rising up in the morning / Stretching out on your boundless bed”; “Unburdened hooks,” etc. And she sings it perfectly, like hitting a beautiful high note on the word high in the arced, “I will box up my high-heeled shoes.” And the beautiful “La-la-la” bridge is like her keeping her head up high as she leaves his house (reminds me of the harmonica outro of Liz Phair’s “Divorce Song”), a box of her girly things in tow, before it ultimately gives way to the inevitable stormy uncertainty of starting anew (pianos, drums and strings masterfully produced to sound like a storm).
That’s about 60 minutes, just 5 minutes more than Ys.
My thoughts on Divers? I have none: haven’t heard it in full yet – mostly avoiding it like the plague because of the hyperbolic reviews that don’t say anything at all, and partly because five years with Have One On Me still wasn’t enough.
The entire, flawed package probably deserves an A- but the great songs are great so: A