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Reviews

Joanna Newsom
Have One On Me Petra Davis , March 3rd, 2010 11:21

Given the completeness of its predecessor's vision, it's perhaps less unfair than usual to begin with Have One On Me by enumerating what it lacks. Newsom abandons the lush strings she adopted for Ys in favour of a more sparing arrangement led by Ryan Francesconi of the Ys Street Band, whose spidery strings, friendly brass and delicious tymps are used here as storytelling devices, announcing changes in mood, pace, or perspective. There's the disappearance of Newsom's formidable squeal to contend with, too. It's hard to hear her straining to finish the longest runs, knowing that she lost that long-belittled knifesplit in her tone to over-performance, illness, and finally silence and the scalpel. Her melodies are still ambitious, her intervals still exuberant, though there's a hoarseness, an odd sudden drop at the end of her breath that alters the syllabic quantities of some lines. Characteristically, however, she uses this to best advantage, slanting her rhymes, sometimes tenderly, sometimes bawdily (the album's title track rhymes 'Bavaria' with 'see you'). Twerps who balked at Newsom's supposedly childlike vision and vocal style can rest easy: by those criteria, this is a far less bruising listen, though challenging in terms of its sheer size. Only this gargantuan triple album could make the eight-minute mini-epics of Ys seem comparatively manageable.

But it's the scope, not the size, of this record that's really the rub. The architecture of Ys, though intricate and arcane, was uniform, and the otherworld it implied, for all it bristled with life, seemed consistent and contained. By contrast, Have One On Me sprawls out, somehow both larger and stiller, less inhabited than haunted. For all the loving feel of the arrangements, this is often macabre terrain. Gone are the companion animals, the monkeys and bears, the epic voyages, the scenes of redemption in a cove, a wood, a castle. Here the wolf-spider, the tarantula, the daddy-long-legs, sidle quietly over the bodies of women caught in unfamiliar silks.

Femininity in crisis is the focus of this record; the tripartite structure which might otherwise imply movements or song cycles here recalls the dressing-table mirror, as the album art suggests. Each CD is separately packaged, adorned with one of a set of shots showing Newsom, stockinged and corseted, winding up her hair, her legs stretched delicately in front of her like an instrument. The mirror, the boudoir, imply interiority, but Newsom's more pressing concerns are the restrictions of adornment ("my ankles are bound in gauze, sickly dressage," she breathes in 'Go Long') and the risks of display, the way it makes her "twist and burn... beneath your blank and rinsing gaze" ('Does Not Suffice'). Calmly, on the cover, Newsom stares out from a sea of broken animal bodies. A golden deer sprouts feather head-dresses; leopardskins drape the ottoman on which she lounges. A stuffed peacock watches over the woman who once wrote of climbing a mountain to save a sparrow.

This is not the living, forgiving world she conjectured then. "When I came into my land," she admits in 'In California', "I did not understand: not the dry rot, nor the burn pile; not the bark-beetle, nor the dry well." Here, though she finds brief comfort by the sea, the spring and the lake, she knows "nature... doles out hurt like a puking bird" ('You and me, Bess'). In this new realm, animals appear most often as skins: the dangling pelts of shot rabbits, a hawkfeather necklace. On occasion, Newsom makes her own furs, catching and skinning a rabbit, "kicking and mewling, upended, unspooling, unsung and blue" ('Baby Birch'), in stark contrast to the joyful unburdening that is the skinning of Bear in _Ys_' strongest track, 'Monkey and Bear'. Here, if animals survive, they too manifest as hunters - the fox Newsom watches picking off her goldfish, the eager little vultures that torment her as she pines for home. Even the horse she rustles for the pleasure of its company eventually accompanies her to the gibbet, neighing as she hangs.

No longer safe in nature, Newsom is seldom far in any case from the dangerous realm of men: the court, the gallows - and the bedroom. "I was brought in on a palanquin made of the many bodies of beautiful women," she murmurs as the regretful low chords of 'Go Long' sway into focus. 'Soft As Chalk', one of several tracks to see Newsom abandon her harp for a plangent piano, finds her regretting the sleepless, talk-filled, sex-filled early days of an old relationship, bemoaning in its wake the pain of "love's godawful lawlessness." Her presence in the world of men besmirches even the idea of home: back on familiar territory, the lakes and barley fields of 'In California', she is shocked to find she is not immune from heartbreak. The sorrowful harp leaves no heartstring unfingered. The image of her "bracing like the bow upon a ship... abandoning any thought of anywhere but home, my home," is as far from the happy little coracle of 'Bridges And Balloons' as is possible to envision.

As befits her recent interest in fashion, Newsom presents clothing not merely as an adjunct of femininity, but as metonymic of the feminised body, and of the gaze that requires its embellishment. The album's title track, which relates the courtly love of King Louis of Bavaria and his mistress, Lola Montez - whose infamous spider dance is considered the origin of burlesque - refers to Lola's physical form by its clothing alone, admiring her skirts and her handsome brassiere. 'Does Not Suffice' sees Newsom enumerate her own bodily absence in the room of a lover she abandons by "the tap of hangers swaying in the closet, unburdened hooks and empty drawers." She watches herself pack the "coats of boucle, jacquard and cashmere, cartouche and tweed, all silver-shot," the frills and furbelows that failed her, that only convinced her lover "how easy I was not."

The sadness and defeat in this, the album's closing track, are foreshadowed in 'Easy', the opening number that begins by boasting "easy, easy, my man and me," and ends with Newsom likening herself to Bloody Mary, the witch who appears in the looking-glass. This enclosing structural arc is only the first layer of the complex, as yet unexplored reflections between these songs. Long investigation of the layers beneath may in time gloss the secrets of Newsom's experiences - her relationships, her sudden fame, her long period of speechlessness - or perhaps fathom the anatomy, the bones beneath the fur and feathers, of her art's larger truths.

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