Returning with an almost comically lengthy new record after a nearly four-year absence, Joanna Newsom is not in the mood to make concessions to the standard musical dietary habits. Over the course of three discs, she has reappeared here in fine, magnanimous form. Indeed, Have One On Me lives up to its name, offering itself liberally and without restraint. An overstuffed gorge of a record, it’s an experience meant to either stuff listeners and leave them queasy or be digested piecemeal, allowing time to savor the range of textures offered.
Neither as fey as The Milk Eyed Mender nor as baroque as Ys, Newsom has toned down the eccentricities and refined her vocal abilities into a more classically pop form. The best songs on Have One On Me recall the heights reached by Newsom’s forebears. “Good Intentions Paving Company” is a jazzy, rollicking throwback to Joni Mitchell’s Reprise years. This track, more than any other, exhibits Newsom’s stylistic shift. Gone are any anachronistic folk pretenses, vocal tics, wallflowerish hesitation, or gestures of false modesty; it builds from a Guaraldian piano base to a lush behemoth of a song. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile this with the Newsom of old, who had shied away from anything this grand or anthemic. Ys toyed with scale, to be sure, but despite the much-lauded audacity of that sophomore album, it felt all too often like Renn-faire playacting. Her transformation here is stunning, awe-inspiring.
Which is perhaps why Newsom felt the need to release this album in such a prohibitively distended fashion. “I do hate to fold/ Right here at the top of my game,” she sings, and it feeds into the whirlwind feelings generated by her outsize ambitions. Though brevity is somewhat antithetical to the spirit of Have One On Me, Newsom wisely balances the longer, denser songs with tracks that would not have found themselves entirely out of place on The Milk Eyed Mender. “’81” and “On A Good Day,” both harp-based songs, appear simple in contrast to their surroundings, but their melodies are still more sophisticated than any she has previously written. “’81,” especially, serves as a bridge between her past and present. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in tender feeling.
Not all of the harp tracks are as immediately gratifying, however. “Esme,” off the third disc, packs less detail into its eight minutes than “’81” does in its three. In fact, the final third of Have One On Me suffers as a result of this musical bloat. Taken on their own terms, these songs are welcome additions to Newsom’s considerable discography, but after the more adventurous, exceptional numbers, tracks like “Esme” and “Soft As Chalk” simply extend the experience, rather than deepen it. But even less distinguished songs like “Ribbon Bows” are lovingly crafted and played, and deserve to be consumed slowly, repeatedly. While those who have long been enchanted by Newsom will likely be grateful for such a monumental heap of new music, others might just see uninhibited indulgence at play.
But unlike her previous two albums, both kinds of listeners will find something to love on Have One On Me. The clear achievement of a song like “Baby Birch” is hardly relative. Over the course of nine and a half minutes, Newsom sings in a soothing, lullaby/hymnal cadence, while tense squalls of electric guitar break through her vocal calm while hollow, martial drums gradually increase the pace until its moony, melodramatic conclusion. Were brevity the chiefmost virtue of popular music, “Baby Birch” would be a turgid waste of time, rather than the deft and skillful creature it is. The same sentiment goes for the rest of the album; there is a depth to the material here that rewards — nay, demands — repeated scrutiny.