For such a small (don’t call her elf-like!) and supposedly soft-spoken gal, Joanna Newsom has a seriously outsized public persona. There are some characters in life that can’t evade the spotlight no matter how hard they try. She distributed her first EPs (recorded on a Fisher Price tape recorder) Walnut Whales and Yarn and Glue only locally at shows. The EPs passed along the indie-rock grapevine without the help of high-powered promotional campaigns, eventually falling into the lap of the Drag City label. Totally unperturbed by the lack of a mainstream (or independent) market for harp music, Drag City signed Newsom and released her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004. Critical response – as has always been the case for Newsom – was mixed. Some were put off by the ‘child-like’ vocals and unimpressed by the Faerie Queene aesthetic, a lingering knock against Newsom that the otherwise successful release Ys (2006) only seemed to reconfirm. But indie music will always have a soft spot for queer birds that write great songs. Even as some of her hardcore indie credentials fade, with late night TV appearances (QRO Indie on Late Night TV), gossip mag dalliances, and a few high-profile commercial licensing deals, Joanna Newsom looks stronger than ever. The epic two-hour Have One On Me will not win over any naysayers who had already given up on her. But it does accomplish one of the most difficult tasks that a rising indie musician can face: welcoming new (mainstream) fans without alienating the old (indie) ones.
The common gripe about HOOM circulating among music critics is that it’s long. A mostly throwaway complaint, tossed off by critics bitter about having to spend twice the normal amount of time reviewing the album. The casual fan, who is allowed to press ‘play’ and ‘stop’ at his leisure, won’t be similarly irked. What’s more revealing is the comment that frequently follows up the ‘long’ shtick: namely, that despite its length, HOOM doesn’t feel bloated or lose the sense of intimacy prized in shorter releases. Newsom goes big, but feels cozy. Credit this to ingenious songwriting, which invites the listener to investigate the depth, rather than the breadth, of the music. Some artists can only go big by adding the London Philharmonic or the Vienna Boys Choir into the mix, because, at bottom, their grand compositions are still the same old pop progressions multiplied into the orchestral sphere. Newsom keeps the instrumentation fairly spare – an incredible achievement considering the average length of the songs. A harp, piano, flute, drum kit, a few horns, and an Appalachian string or two form a family you will come to know and love after several visits with the album.
One news nugget circulating around the release of HOOM is the revelation of vocal issues that plagued Newsom during 2009. She developed ‘nodules’, small growths on the vocal chord that can cause hoarseness at the very least, and a reduced vocal range at the opposite extreme. The effects on Newsom split the difference. The voice on HOOM, with its effortless flutter and strength, is not the voice of a hobbled woman. It is, however, a significant departure from the pixie-hues that earned her so many puzzled looks on songs like "The Sprout and The Bean" from The Milk-Eyed Mender; different even from the Celtic-isms of her songs from Ys. As "Easy" opens the album, Newsom introduces the listener to a less ostentatious vocal styling. Kinder, gentler, more accessible without becoming more simple; she has rooted the queer turns of her voice into the deeper firmament of folk tradition without losing one iota of her peculiar individuality. Truly a sign of maturity and mastery from one of the greatest female vocalists of her generation.
Another surprise laying in wait for listeners is the turn away from the harp as the star of HOOM. "No Provenance", "On a Good Day" and "‘81" meet expectations: the last song is an especially delicate harp ballad cut from the same cloth as her earlier work. But the piano asserts itself again and again in songs like swinging, bluegrass-y "Good Intentions Paving Company", the quiet ballad "Occident" and the powerful gospel closer "Does Not Suffice". On the whole, the album favors ensemble work among the instruments with the occasional solo turn on the piano or harp. When you have two hours to work with, you can have these sorts of luxuries. The final impression is decidedly different from that of the odd-duck-with-the-harp-singing-about-dewdrops-and-butterflies that has haunted Newsom since her early EPs. Talk of croaking frogs and Gardens of Eden give way to real life laments over contemporary relationships (and their difficulties) in the modern age. It’s a startling development given her reputation; decentering the harp has allowed Newsom to sound all the more relevant, while still retaining some of the magic fairy dust fans loved in earlier work.
Have One On Me thrusts Joanna Newsom firmly into a well-deserved, mostly-mainstream spotlight. The album is an epic story, with too many turns to recount or explain (though the forthcoming publication Visions of Joanna Newsom, with contributions from Dave Eggers, may give it a go). The broad strokes, however, are instantly recognizable. A woman struggles to come to terms with the reality of a loveless relationship in alternating bouts of fantasy and hardened realism. Are the little lies we tell ourselves to make uncomfortable truths go away all that different from the fantasy worlds children weave for sheer pleasure? At least children can be shaken from their dreaming revelry; the adult predicament is to release one fantasy only when another is ready to take us into its arms. The woman in Have One On Me weaves fantastic stories to find meaning in the hurt of a broken relationship, as reality presses in. When the high, staccato piano keys announce themselves in the final minute of the final song, sounding like the urgent tap-a-tap-tap of an old-fashioned telegraph, the hurly burly world has finally broken through the protective layers encasing her heart, soul and mind. She makes a decision to leave him, trading the illusion of dependence for the lie of self-reliance in a farce that is as tragic as it is beautiful.
If it’s time for Joanna Newsom to introduce herself to the mainstream, Have One On Me is a fantastic hello. Ethereal and grounded, epic and intimate, gorgeous and intelligent: HOOM has to be an early contender for album of the year. How much of the music that comes out this year will you be listening to ten years from now? HOOM has real staying power. The intervening months between now and the December list making should give even the laziest critic ample time to play the album all the way through, and discover its magic for themselves.