So, here we are. This is Joanna Newsom’s third album, and as Joanna Newsom albums go, it’s almost normal. That is to say, there’s some four minute songs, and there’s some relatively low-key pop songs, and there’s really only a handful of tracks that near the ten-minute mark. Maybe the only conceit here is that it’s a triple album, but this is less of a gimmick than a necessity. There’s two hours of music, and it’s the content that fits the form, not the other way around.
So what is the content like? Well, it’s not accessible as her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. This will disappoint some, but it doesn’t hinder the album. The scale is deceptive; on the surface, it’s not the epic landscape of critical pantswetter Ys, but once you start wading in here you quickly get the feeling that this is the product of an incredibly fertile period of truly profilic work. If Ys was the epic novel based on Newsom’s muse, this is the history: the little stories that make up her world taken together as a whole, rather than the story of the grandest characters. To stretch the analogy in another direction, it’s history from below, rather than history from above. Umm… It’s The Wire as opposed to The West Wing.
It’s helpful to get a handle on the record like this, because there’s a lot to digest, and while one or two songs are instantly appealing, the album as a whole takes a little bit of work before it reveals the extent of its charm. And it is charming: there are songs here that easily match the highpoints of Ys. The Carole King-esque ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ is the first song to truly set about conquering the listener, a feet-tappingly-good piano-led story of homecoming and lovelorn nights, set to a melody that sounds sweet and sexy all at once. And one minute and twenty seconds in, there’s a little drum-roll, a note held and set down, and that’s one of the finest few seconds you’ll hear this year.
It’s the exception rather than the rule, though, as most of the other songs eschew its propulsive rhythm in favour of something more sedate. The nine-minute ‘In California’ is a pretty good example of what happens when Newsom puts her songwriting chops in the service of her imagination, as menacing thumps rise over the hills, and the whole song seems bathed in sunlight. The strings all swell at the right moment, and her voice hits high notes with a delicacy and sensitivity you never knew she had. In fact, she didn’t – after she developed vocal cord nodes in 2009, her old voice literally went away. It’s a lot smoother and more softened now, and it helps give the record its own easy, languid tone.
Have One On Me is less of a statement than Ys, both in scope and content, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s blooming with its own sense of confidence, as well as a very strong feminine presence – one that tends towards delicacy, yes, but also towards moments of confrontation and adventure. It’s beautiful and it’s stunning, and well worth the hours and days it takes to get to know it. It’s hard to say how this album will come to be viewed, and God only knows what she’ll do next. But after having made three very different albums, after the low-key charm of The Milk-Eyed Mender and the colossal splendour of Ys, this might be the one that we come to think of as the archetypal Joanna Newsom record – inventive and warm, complex but not showy, equally confident in its grand and simple moments. She’s capable of bettering it, but this is so good, maybe it’s the kind of album she’s suppposed to be making.