I’ve begun returning to Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me with some regularity. There was a patch between the first period of passionate consumption and this renewed interest when I didn’t listen to the record at all. If anything, upon return I found it richer, weirder and more attractive than the first time. On the strength of this three disc opus, Sebastian Clarke has called Newsom one of his favourite poets (he really needs to check out Ys); as noted previously, Adam Roberts was less convinced. Both of these responses are justifiable, and may indeed be functions of the same phenomenon, namely Newsom’s wilful difficulty. What makes her lyrics so very distinctive and challenging also makes her songs gruelling exercises in the twist and the turn.
Case in point: the meandering, hookless, uplifting and confounding opening song of the opening disc is entitled, er, “Easy”. Geddit? It is followed by the album’s title track, “Have One On Me”. This plucks and trills for no fewer than eleven minutes and two further seconds. That is in turn followed by the song which comes closest to Newsom’s previous form on her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender: “’81” offers blissful three-and-a-half minute respite and a reminder that Newsom can square her own circle, offering pleasant pop perfection which doesn’t compromise on Newsom’s gnomic lyrical preferences. But then – and here is where she gets really frustrating – we are treated to “Good Intentions Paving Company”, a song which remains one of the catchiest, most pleasurable highlights of any of the three discs and yet lasts for more than seven minutes. This much defiance of expectation in just four songs suggests that Have One On Me is far from the generous, no-strings offer it proclaims itself to be.
The second disc, for instance, opens with a beautiful-but-flighty ditty about the inevitability of death which stays with us just a few minutes; it is followed by seven minutes of simpering over a lovely horse. It is impossible to nail Newsom down – she does too much, pulls too many shapes to allow us to settle into any one of them. The third disc, that El Dorado just visible at the end of a pop journey longer and stranger than we’re used to, may well be the album’s best: “Soft as Chalk”, “Ribbon Bows” and “Kingfisher” are all conspicuously lovely, and the disc as a whole forms the kind of unity the other two largely reject. That may be another way of saying that its songs are more samey than the ones which make up the other two sets, and repetition is an issue across the album. But this, too, might be deliberate: after all, the final track on the final disc is a formal and explicit reprise of the third on the second.
Have One On Me remains defiant and uncategorisable. This makes it wearying, and possibly unknowable. But also kinda beautiful.