On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is way too early to discuss Joanna Newsom’s new collection of songs, Have One On Me, and 10 is just the right time to do so, we are at -1. I call the release a ‘collection of songs’ rather than ‘album’ because Have One On Me, even more than Ys (2006) before it, seems to raise its eyebrow at such irrelevant terms as ‘record’ or ‘LP’: a three-disc boxset of songs ranging from friendly 3 minute ditties (’81’) to 11 minute monsters (‘Have One On Me’), this latest from Newsom refuses even the lip service Ys, a five-track threepenny-opera-on-acid, paid to the concept of the traditional rock record.
Not that Have One On Me doesn’t also share much with Newsom’s most straight-forward record, her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. In that this third proper full release consists of songs played for the songs themselves rather than a grand aesthetic – gone are the flamboyant theatrics of Ys – then Have One On Me is also a return to a straighter bat: the glorious ‘Good Intentions Paving Co.’ is as infectious a piece of songwriting as you’ll hear all year, despite its seven minute running time.
But these songs twist and narrate far more than something like ‘Inflammatory Writ’ or ‘The Sprout and the Bean’. Recalling ‘Monkey and Bear’ from Ys in content if not in tone (“Miss Montez, the Countess of Lansfeld / appealed to the King of Bavaria”), ‘Have One On Me’ is full of personified arachnids and fabulous phrases – “I saw a chunk of thrown coal / As if god himself spat like a cornered rat.” On the other hand, opener ‘Easy’ woozes in and out of a swirling refrain, sounding grand and epic but on the level of lyrics being as plain a love song as Newsom can write.
The astute reader will have spotted all my examples are taken from the first CD. Like I said, -1. If the other two discs match the first for inventiveness and intelligence, however, Have One On Me will be hard to displace as ‘record’ of the year.