Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (Drag City)
“So I thought I hated her, like, but, then, I didn’t,” sounds like a line from the mumblecore film “The Puffy Chair” or a line from that new (and cringe-worthy) show “How To Make It In America.” Lucky for you it’s neither of those mediocre twenty-something productions but something far more superior: my inner-twenty-something-dialogue. Now who wants to be the water boy for the mumblecore flick I’m making called “Joanna Newsom, I’m pretty sure I’ve decided I love you,” shooting this upcoming fall?
Experiencing her third major release and ambitious two-hour long album Have One On Me, I finally came to a decision: her music is one-part beautiful, one-part one part jarring and confusing, and two-parts cinematic. And the sum of its parts is one wild ride, most of which I like being on.
The album begins with “Easy.” Like the title, Newsom’s vocals are melodious, soft and antiquated, almost like a jazz standard, reminiscent of love in the back of a red Chevy in Coney Island in 1955. I say 1955 to be historically accurate, because of course there’d be no cutting school and making out in the back of red Chevys with white boys before Brown v. Board of Ed. As soon as Newsom created a comfortable mood and I was happy in my fantasy of equitable love affairs, the strings came in and the mood shifted abruptly, she hurling me into a dark forest alone and fearful. What happened to my crinoline and the lips of that straight version of James Dean and why is this wolf chasing me in the middle of Appalachia? I rejected the form the song had taken and became angry at her cacophonous sound. However, just when I decided I didn’t like her and her jarring shifts, she retreated and brought me back to Coney Island, my boyfriend, James, and our racially harmonious make-out. I ended the song with feeling appropriately “easy.”
As the album continues Newsom’s patterns and transformations become more apparent. There is a cyclic structure in her voice and music, which consistently begins with a tranquility that moves into tempestuousness, only to return to calm. It was a peculiar moment when I saw the song entitled “California” because I’d been feeling as though her “tranquil” sounds bordered on aping Joni Mitchell. But then she’d metamorphose into sounding like a small witch: crescendoing and abandoning the melody, using glottal stops and her harp to crash into an equally whimsical but harsher universe.
At first, I became jaded and decided once again I didn’t like her, because I’d figured her “system” out. But then I let go of the discomfort and anger that the strange amalgamation of her warring sounds gave me, and then something happened; I listened to the words and gave into her cycle and allowed myself to create my own adventure. It was one that allowed for love in the back of a Chevy and wild chases in forests. It was one I’d wanted all along but was too consumed by her incongruous voices and melodies to let myself succumb to. But when I did let go of it all, I had a pretty good time.
My most evocative adventure (and favorite song) was “Good Intentions, Paving Co.” Newsom, from the beginning of the track defies her crutch pattern and in its place was a refreshingly up-tempo beat. The adventure commences: “Twenty miles left to the shore / hello my old country / hello.” It’s an anthem for the road, a summer song. Top down, Camel in hand, scarf atop my unruly curls, headed toward the sea in Maine, to the only unadulterated part of this country (and my aching heart) left. With the torture of lost love behind me in the rear-view, this trip is one of severance and hopefully of self-discovery.
I lean over to my friend who drives and I give her a knowing, pained smile. She knows that I am bemoaning the loss: “And I do hate to fold right here at the top of my game / when I’ve been trying with my whole heart and soul to stay right here in the right lane.” And we keep driving and the air becomes stale and I finally I surrender to the pangs of heartache and wish I were in the car with him and not my friend, “When I only want for you to pull over and hold me / ‘Til I can’t remember my own name.”
And then the instrumental comes in and I begin to find peace in being on my own. I lean over to my friend, take the cigarette that we are sharing back from between her fingers that rest on the wheel, take a pull and exhale, we’ve made it to the shore. And my mumblecore film, “Joanna Newsom, sometimes I love you”—starring the actors from “How To Make It In America”—is over.
Video: Joanna Newsom – “Soft as Chalk” (live)
Joanna Newsom: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki
Collier Meyerson lives in Brooklyn, but reps her original home, the upper west side, till she dies. She runs the blog tête-to-tête.