One of the odder things about Joanna Newsom is her tendency to be compared, by fans and critics, to all manner of mythical forest-dwelling creatures: pixies, elves, sprites, Björk. These comparisons, while not always flattering on the surface, are typically meant as compliments, to underscore the otherworldly, enchanting quality of Newsom’s music. But the Newsom who debuted with The Milk Eyed-Mender was hardly ethereal; in fact, part of that album’s charm was its groundedness. It drew heavily on folk, bluegrass, and Appalachian musical traditions; it was also pretty concise, with nearly all three- and four-minute tracks. Sure, she was already showing signs that she would soon let her Kate Bush freak flag fly, but at the time she was also a little more Loretta Lynn—hell, even a little more Dolly Parton—and a lot easier to like.
Newsom’s follow-up, Ys, found the singer-songwriter squeaking out her dense, heavily allusive lyrics over an hour’s worth of knotty arrangements. Sure, it was ambitious, but it was also defiantly pretentious, a prog monstrosity clad in the simple garb of indie folk. But one listener’s ren-fest hell is another’s enchanted garden: A lot of people loved Ys, and Newsom’s star, not to mention her ego, continued to rise. And whatever aspirations to making capital-A art she has previously evinced, Newsom goes even bigger with her third effort. It’s a two-hour, three-disc affair called Have One on Me (I would have gone with The Audacity of Harp).
The new material is no Ys rehash, but that doesn’t mean that Newsom has matured as a songwriter. First, I’m not sure where maturity enters into the equation when discussing an album that forthrightly indulges every one of its creator’s whims, but (slightly) less polemically, the compositions on Have One remain as ignorant of structure as those on Ys, simply in a different way. Whereas Ys‘s restless arrangements, courtesy of Van Dyke Parks, lacked the unity that solid, compositional ideas provide, Newsom’s new effort is disappointingly static and, as a result, tedious. Coming from someone who sees herself as a storyteller as much as songwriter, its remarkable how little narrative arc develops either within or between songs.
The album’s first long cut, the 11-minute title track, isn’t exemplary of the album; in fact, it’s the most Ys-like here. It certainly can’t be faulted for a lack of dynamism, but its subsections bare little relation to one another: One minute Newsom is cooing coyly over pan pipes, the next she’s shrieking about—maybe to—a daddy longlegs. And even though it eventually comes to an engaging finish by way of a wordless vocal hook, Newsom drags the song out for another minute, patching on an unrelated harp outro. We get a better idea of where the remainder of the album is going by the first disc’s “Good Intentions Paving Company,” an unusually upbeat number that makes inspired use of jazz-styled percussion around the two- and six-minute marks. That seems pretty thin justification for the remaining five minutes, which are comprised of Newsom’s occasionally tonal trilling set to plinking piano keys, but maybe I’m just not attuned to her brand of quirkiness.
That’s how most of Have One plays: moments of inspired performance scattered haphazardly throughout tracks that just don’t feel like they’ve been thought through. There’s a perfectly dramatic drum-and-vocal break that shoots some much needed melodrama into the otherwise doldrums “In California,” but you’ll have to wait over seven minutes for it. And Newsom’s clearly aiming for some kind of emotional climax about halfway into the eight-minute “Go Long,” so why the excess of aimless mandolin strumming on either end? These tracks, and the many others like them (“Autumn” and “Kingfisher” being the most egregious examples from the third disc), prompt the question of why Newsom can’t be bothered to pare down on all the bloated extras and get to the good part. And the only answers I can think of have to do with Newsom subscribing to some nastily self-important notions of how grateful and attentive her audiences should be; or else that she’s just guessing her way through without aspiring to any kind of structural coherence whatsoever.
That may sound harsh, but invested as she is in her dense libretto, it’s not unreasonable to think that many of Newsom’s songs develop as vehicles for her lyrics. Newsom’s recurring motifs (nature imagery, fables, forests) and her favored topics (hard relationships, broken hearts) all get their due. Too often, though, Newsom aims at spinning some timeless fables of her own, and ends up sounding more precious than wise. On “‘81” she beckons her listener to “Meet me in the Garden of Eden/Bring a friend/Were going to have a time/We’re going to have a garden party.” When she delivers these sorts of lines with her voice set to its most gurgling, girlish register, the results are noxiously cloying. Then there are the abundance of lines that are just too bizarre to take seriously at all, like the reference in “Jackrabbits” to a time when Newsom “scrabbled at your chest like a mute/With my fists of ham.” Or the one about the daddy longlegs.
Though she’s clearly happiest when engaged in the convoluted play of strange symbols, Newsom fares much better when she sticks to simpler matters. “Esme” contains more straightforward declaratives than any other song on the album, its powerful, culminating verse beginning with “I believe love will always surround you.” Musically, though, it’s another long, static, acoustic ballad, the kind you’ll have had plenty of by that late in the album. “Baby Birch,” the first disc’s closer, does make some inspired use of Newsom’s nature imagery, but its best moments happen to be the most direct. When Newsom sings, in as unaffected a voice as she’s liable to use, “How are you?/Your eyes are green, your hair is gold/Your hair is black, your eyes are blue,” she’s channeling such a powerful register of regret that even a skeptic like myself will take notice. “Baby Birch” is one of maybe two or three of the lengthier tracks that actually justifies its runtime, as Newsom makes use of her broad canvass to fold in some discordant guitar and, eventually, a genuinely propulsive percussive break. It helps that just as that wave of noise is cresting, Newsom continually accelerates her vocal delivery. It’s far and away the most exciting moment on the record, but it arrives by an artful use of those two pop music staples, melodrama and dynamism, that Newsom so often forbids herself.
What’s apparent in her disavowal of those elements, from which pop music derives so much of its simple pleasure, is that Newsom wants Have One to be heard as a serious piece of art. But if she transcends the confines of pop music, it’s ultimately only in the scope of her ambitions. Compared to any of the serious work being done by modern composers of whatever inclination, Newsom’s frequently static, unstructured wanderings would reveal themselves as alarmingly inadequate. The end result is a strange, and strangely pretentious mess: an album pitted deep in the psychic world of stories that nonetheless can’t figure out when it should begin, when it should end, or which parts are even worth the audience’s attention.