Joanna Newsom emerged from the hills of northern California toting a pedal harp and a suite of songs of ocean voyages, dream theater, folly and youth in fable and verse. With her latest release, “Have One on Me,” Newsom leaves behind the fumbling eloquence of her youth and sheds some of her baroque finery.
Joanna Newsom emerged from the hills of northern California toting a pedal harp and a suite of songs of ocean voyages, dream theater, folly and youth in fable and verse. She sang in a sprightly, cracked coo of the magic of place names, and we were charmed.
Throughout the dozen or so songs that led to her first full-length release in 2002, we get the sense of a young poet fumbling into the darkness of her talent.
In her second release, a couple years later, Newsom ventures out of the shadows into the splendor of her brilliance, backlit by the string arrangements of Van Dyke Parks. “Ys” is as radiant and unreachable as a sun — it’s her masterpiece.
“I paid such close attention to every tiny little detail — the syntax, the lyrics, the distribution of syllabic entropies, the interior and exterior rhyme patterns,” she says of her lyric writing on “Ys,” in an interview with “Time” magazine.
Making the album was “a little frenetic,” she says, even though the dense fabric of her lyrics, clustered with meaning, feels anything but frenetic.
With her latest release, “Have One on Me,” Newsom leaves behind the fumbling eloquence of her youth and sheds some of her baroque finery. The girl has become a woman, in voice and manner. If “Ys” was like “being a little kid coming home from church,” decked in her scratchiest Sunday best, she says, “Have One on Me” was like tearing it all off so she could “run around outside in my underwear.”
There’s plenty of fun-in-your-britches mischievousness on “Soft as Chalk,” for example, which turns a few corners and twice erupts into a jangly piano romp in its skinny six and a half minutes.
The album spans two hours over three discs — think of them as chapters in a book, says Newsom — yet it never feels heavy or slack. Instead, much of “Have One on Me” has an ethereal weightlessness to it, and it’s worth noting that Newsom developed vocal chord nodules when she set out to record the album and couldn’t speak for two months, rediscovering a more tempered voice on the other side of silence.
Ryan Francesconi arranged the songs on this album where he plays no fewer than eight instruments, including the banjo, kora and tambura — although his sparse and haunting touches of electric guitar on “Baby Birch” may be his most shining moment. Neal Morgan also comes to the fore here on percussion, playing with an artistry and ingenuity that far surpasses the dues of a mere rhythm section.
For all of the brilliance of her band, however, this is still a Joanna Newsom album, and it’s still at her beckon that our knees buckle.