Sunday, June 27, 2010
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
You know why I think the White Album is the Beatles' best work? Because it's like the aural equivalent to Frederick Olmstead's landscape architecture (Central Park, Biltmore Mansion, World's Colombian Exposition; read Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, possibly the greatest book of the last decade, to learn about him) -- it's overwhelming, huge, and it only reveals itself with time. It is too much to process at once, and too good to appreciate immediately. Full of nooks and crannies and secrets and weird winding alleyways, it's sprawling but precise. Its precision is designed to look messy and cathartic, because the album is long -- incredibly long; 30 songs, over 90 minutes, more than twice as long as any other Beatles LP -- by necessity. It's a massive thing to tackle because that's the way it had to be, born of the near-total lack of synchronicity between the four band members at that time. Instead of compromising, they let it all out, and the result barely hangs together and is awe-inspiringly wonderful.
I'm a minimalist by nature. I think most pop songs should be shorter than they are. I think movies should almost never exceed 109 minutes, and really think Freaks and Dumbo had the right idea by barely hitting an hour. Some people say this is because I have a pathetically short attention span, but I don't even remember who those people are. The thing is, Joanna Newsom's new album appeals to me despite its audacious length (a triple album, it's roughly 33 minutes longer than the Beatles' opus) because every second of it is measured, emotional, crucial, needed... sometimes funny, sometimes weird, sometimes sad, always thoroughly compelling. I let Kubrick get away with his long movies because Kubrick is someone who you're willing to give your attention to for three hours, regardless of what he's talking about. Joanna Newsom is the same, but she's not giving you an endurance test here; you're not allowed to complain that Have One on Me is too long. It isn't even the heavy workload that all that Beatles pop bliss was. It's designed to be taken slowly. It might be more accurately described as a trilogy of albums than as a single triple album. It could fit on two discs but Newsom would rather you let this wash over you so you can build your relationship slowly. And she's not in a hurry for you to realize it just might be a masterpiece. But I've spent three months with it now: It just might be a masterpiece.
Conceptually brilliant, the record's divisions become clearer over time. From the time I've spent with the lyric booklet I think I can work out that it (often loosely and/or metaphorically) covers the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship that's fraught with fear and doubt from the beginning. But I work better with feels and musical ideas than with lyrical themes, so I've come to think of LP1 as the pop record, LP2 as the folk record, LP3 as the psychedelic record. I don't mean to suggest that the three are each a stand-alone product, because they refer back to one another in ways it make take us all years to realize, the way Pet Sounds and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea did. But I think this is the way to explore the album: to take on each record as its own work, get to know it, and move onward, thus giving the final full listen the same sense of journey I still get from the White Album and the only other exceptionally good triple album I can think of, 69 Love Songs and Sandinista!. (Sorry, All Things Must Pass.)
We did give the record a cursory listen when we finally got our hands on the set and the pleasures were frequent, but flew by too quickly to catch or concentrate on. So it has to be noted: As background music, Have One on Me does not work. It doesn't work all that well in the car either, at least until you know it really well. I will concede the immediacy of The Milk Eyed Mender is mostly faded, and you have to work a bit more than you did to find the stark, effortless beauty of Ys (the slightly strained seriousness and pretension of which have also receded, thankfully)... but you don't have to work to love the album, it's just a different animal and needs to be heard differently than you expect or it might appear. It's a quiet, detailed, intricate recording and it needs your full attention to be adequately appreciated. And it is never boring, but before you know the songs, two straight hours is a bit much and not the revelation reviews like this might lead you to expect. Take some time with disc one when you don't have anything else competing for your attention. Ready? Good, now let's talk about it.
The very first sound you hear on Have One on Me is Newsom's voice, and it marks a departure out of the gate. Newsom's singing was altered permanently by a vocal cord injury during her promotion of Ys; she now sings lower and slightly more "conventionally," though hardly in the obscene American Idol manner the word might imply. But if you think this might rob her voice of some of its distinctive personality, worry not -- it doesn't, and if anything her singing is now more expressive and varied than ever before, occasionally calling to mind Billie Holiday as much as Joni Mitchell. As if to match the new tones of her vocals, the songs have become subtler, more sophisticated, the compositions tighter and more adventurous and surprising, lacking the (however appealing) ramble-ons of the previous record. "Easy" is a conceptual rather than visceral opener. Longish and tricky and slow, it documents a bed occupied by a couple at the eye of the hurricane, peace and oblivion with the constant threat of passing time and looming conflict just beyond the bedroom door. The slow crawl forth of a string quartet precedes Newsom's piano, returning at last after its Ys hiatus, and cinematic arrangement. Already the song structure is warped, but seen in the light of the album "Easy" is downright conventional, its repeated parts clear and obvious, its tempo only slightly wavering back and forth for its six minutes.
But Newsom wastes no time tripping onward into surrealism and head-spinning aural restlessness with the title track, some bit of business about Lola Montez and the "Spider Dance" that she claims is about public female exploration of sexuality. The words evoke Wonderland, or Medieval Europe, but the startling fact here is the music, with breathlessly moves from delicate folk to hopping, marching clap-alongs and orchestral soundscapes and one entirely new melody after another, one sudden shift in tone, style, and production after another -- over eleven minutes of secrets and revelations. "Have One on Me" (the "one" seemingly being a poisoned drink from a trusted fellow human; you're welcome) is appropriately named, setting as it does the stage: cryptic but weirdly perfect lyrics, and wildly unpredictable, hushed, intensely felt. As soon as you've resigned yourself to the odd beauty of one moment, another comes careening around the corner. It could be at least a dozen songs... all of them memorable.
For act the third, another left turn, here into simplest folk with brevity. "'81" finds Newsom and her harp singing (more beautifully than ever before) about a solo walk through the Garden of Eden -- the title is a numerical homonym, the lyrics in fact referring to "AD 1" -- but the voice aches with seductive loss. Her melody is infinitely persuasive, but the way she lives in every word, it doesn't even need to be. With "I believe in innocence, little darling / I believe in everyone," time could stop, and she achieves this as easily in under four minutes as she just did in almost twelve. But that's the thing: She always gets there on this album, and she always knows just how long to stick to it.
My first of five nominees for The Song of the Album follows. "Good Intentions Paving Company" is atypically literal, less atypically personal, sad, and witty ("How I say to you 'Honey, just open your heart' / When I have trouble even opening a honey jar"). The song seems to be about travelling a long distance for a lover and experiencing the gradual law of diminishing returns on the other's end with repeat trips. She sings of wanting her man to pull over the car and hold her, and of torturing herself over complex relationship details during flights from far away, surrounded by vastness and weighed down with a heart full of same. Extraordinarily catchy and involved, the piano-driven "ooh ooh"-filled highlight flexes Newsom's more conventional compositional muscles. The bridge and verses are obvious here, but she still plays with structure enough that the return of the backing vocals six minutes in is cause for joy... like a familiar landmark on a highway. The track is simply stunning in ways previously unexplored from Newsom.
With its melancholy "in your arms" refrain, "No Provenance" could be born of the same week of writing as "Good Intentions Paving Company"; it certainly seems to reflect similar structural and lyrical ideas, and sequels it neatly in the lineup. You're less likely to hum "No Provenance" a few days later, and if anything this song leaves one wanting more, retaining its subtletly throughout. It is meant to be heard carefully, to have its pangs of doubt weighed and understood. Magical, jazzy forms and careful intimacy sharpen the blade. Newsom's production places her harp in the center but the emphasis -- particularly as the song progresses -- is on the complementary instrumentation, and most of all on her voice, which continues to discover new shades and tones heretofore unimagined.
Nominee for Song of the Album #2 is "Baby Birch," -- a lullaby like the later "Esme," only this child was never born -- the purest and most persuasive pop song of Newsom's career to date, albeit slow and fiery and nine minutes. But the song's spare sound (harp and vocal only until the stirring conclusion) and elegantly concise melody give Newsom the opportunity to approach soul -- soul of the highest, most seemingly supernatural and permanent variety, like Sam Cooke singing "Tennessee Waltz" or Aretha Franklin on "Do Right Woman" -- in her vocal, which is so effortlessly gorgeous (but hardened, even angry, always bursting with feeling) it could make you weep. There simply aren't many people alive at any given time who can sing like this, much less than can write and play like this simultaneously. Somewhere buried in this magical, pure, brilliantly considered moment is five decades of the right things in rock & roll, and this is what maturity should sound like. And then the rest of the band comes in and seems to drive the song to altogether different waters. You will not hear a more moving song this year. (And if only you could see her play it live, folks, the way we did first; try to.)
So that's Record One. What do you think? Listen again, come up with insights undoubtedly better than mine. Spend time with it. Put it on shuffle, whatever, doesn't matter. If you have the vinyl -- which is mastered fabulously -- leave that on your table for a while. Don't move on until you feel acquainted with these six songs. It won't take long.
In the last week of March, Amber and I saw Joanna Newsom at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. For a venue of its rather substantial size, the theater offered an intimate and highly comfortable, hushed, elegant surrounding for the sharing of one's art with a thousand or two while allowing each forged connection to seem immediate.
We had the odd experience of hearing many of these songs live before in any other context, as we'd been unable to locate the record and I had steered clear of leaks. This did not rob them of their immediacy. She played most of the first record and touched on the others after opening solo with the morbidly friendly "On a Good Day." And "Baby Birch" jutted out like the glorious lament that it is, its frayed emotions shimmering. Her band crafted a gigantic sound, and her rapport with them was palpable when she joked about not knowing whether her harp was in tune or not. It was a night of beautiful, passionate music played by someone at the top of her game. People spend lives obsessing over the great rock & roll of the past; this is happening right now, art and personality and invention of the highest order. Go see her!
And I assume you are now ready for Record Two. It's this one that may have the most in common with Newsom's first couple of albums, but that does not make it significantly less a revelation. And the woman greeting us with "On a Good Day" has grown considerably older since The Milk Eyed Mender with its many sprightly morsels. The song is barbed, wicked, deceptive as it reflexes back on its own optimism: She's saying hello on a nice day, but the clarity makes the imminent end (of love? a state of mind? the world?) too obvious not to lend a sense of doom. Her celebratory cooing segues into mourning as she shakes her head at the choices you've made that keep you far from her "love for you." All this is explored in under two minutes, lending any additional credibility (if needed) to the more rambling tracks: Newsom knows when economy is necessary, and keeps this heavenly, sobering beauty quick and cutting.
As on the first LP, the second cut travels into storytelling and metaphor. "You and Me, Bess" is a complete seven-minute opus about a girl put to death for stealing a horse. Newsom explores something new here -- menace. (Listen to the brass.) Instead of gentle strokes at her harp, here she seems to pound at it in broad, workmanlike gestures as though chopping a tree. The connections to the title track are inescapable -- a woman serving her own interests, inciting awe and rage, and our heroine here must then pay the price. In composition, this song is more grounded than "Have One on Me," but it compensates in its increasingly full, claustrophobic production, placing the listener in the oven, or the gallows, closely recalling (perhaps intentionally) Leonard Cohen's ethereal "Joan of Arc," replete with beautiful la-la choruses.
And closing Side Three is my Nominee #3 for the Song of the Album. "In California" has folks from all over falling over themselves with Joni Mitchell comparisons, and these are not inappropriate; for me, this is more a mark of how dramatically Newsom's voice has changed than anything (listen to this and "Peach, Plum, Pear" side by side). I find this to be a microcosm of the feel of the album, even more so than the title track because its words are more direct. Musically, it's one beautiful and brief passage or refrain after another. Vocally, Newsom continues to startle and amaze with her readings, which seem so blatantly capable of rendering banalities sublime that she could easily get away with being a far less inspiring lyricist than she is. But I have a feeling -- backed up because the song is directly reprised in about an hour -- that the story being told in "In California" is in many ways the story of the album as a whole, repeating its themes of relationships in unfamiliar territory as heard in "Good Intentions Paving Company," here rendered less confusing and far more submerging and sad, the sound of a person sinking... slowly, very slowly. The gradual transformation (rather than rapid changeover) of the song to the boisterous menace and then anguished cry it becomes is as galvanizing as anything pop music can bring us. And yet again, you want every section to stretch on longer than it does; after eight minutes, you are still left longing for more, more of everything.
Despite Newsom's choice of a triad division, there is a stark and seemingly deliberate change in tone at the halfway point of Have One on Me... it becomes an even more intricate and more difficult album, the melodies more subtle, the production less intrusive, the arrangments more obtuse. Even more than the first nine cuts, the final nine demand to be listened to very carefully. Most of the songs before this point could work equally well out of context. With two exceptions (and your mileage may vary), these songs rely intently on one another. At the opening of Side Four, Joanna announces "I was tired of being drunk / With my face cracked like a joke." "Jackrabbits" -- only Newsom and her harp -- is the most deliberately paced song of the album, but one of its most purely beautiful: When she feels like it, Newsom falls into a "tell you that I can love you again... love you again" chorus of shattering vulnerability; it sounds like a difficult to confession or conclusion to make, a tortuous song to allow oneself to sing. This builds onto its languid perfection until the casual atmosphere becomes as pointed, hushed, elegant as all that's already been revealed to us.
The same confessional tone, vocals in the center, a quiet and direct communication that builds into a shouting, leads us into the lengthy, fiery "Go Long." Lyrically, Newsom goes for the jugular, consciously artless and accusatory: "You think you can just stop when you're ready for change / Who will take care of you when you're old and dying?"... (Note the Lennonesque rhyme avoidance there.) Musically, it's a thing of complex beauty, harp and strings crafting a baroque wintry landscape that envelops the listener... but for the duration, all is not well. "You have done harm," she tells us.
My fourth nominee for the greatest Have One on Me cut has been my favorite for some time now, "Occident," and I've lived with it long enough now to believe it may be the record's greatest moment. It's a strange choice in a way because it is among the most conventional songs of the album, few wild tempo changes and aural tricks. It is strongest for me precisely because it is so subtle, carrying the same beauty that passes so divinely through so much of this magical record, here muted and explored carefully, slowly. It helps to know the album's other secrets. Having seen all that she and her music can do, when she hits that one special two-note piano lick on "Occident," it is heartplay. Her vocal is more ragged here as well, unpolished passion cutting through all the guarded witticisms and poetry of Newsom's confoundingly impressive 2010 lyrics (the lovely turns of phrase come too fast to capture in the proverbial bucket: "slow heart, congregate") -- every time her voice cracks and tears, it seems like a secret's being revealed. Her ability to sound like a different person from song to song is startling -- the impatient, commanding, world-worn lady here ("What in the world are we waiting for?") a stranger to the optimist and poet of "'81," the wide-eyed secret hope buried in the honey-jar heart of "Good Intentions" now "so tired of the guessing game." But as wrapped up as you could be in wonderings about all this despair, what emerges above all is that bloody piano, its effortless wisdom and comfort, a perfect evocation of the beating heart amidst all the miserable doorways life requires us to pass through on our way to wherever. I know she's telling a story here, I feel and sense it and someday I'll try to know for sure, but oh, that piano. (And these 5.5 minutes seem achingly short, still.)
Record Two will take longer, especially side two. But affix yourself to it and its bittersweet charms and you will find the incredible feeling of a great work revealing itself to you.
It was, for me at least, a worthwhile rock & roll moment for whatever pantheon I end up creating someday of same, the ones that actually happened to me that wouldn't seem really rock & roll to the Cleveland museum crowd but that's what rock & roll is, goddammit. That would be seeing the 3-LP package of Have One on Me on vinyl at the Joanna Newsom show for $25 and scrambling to go find an ATM that would take my card so we could run back and buy it. We ended up entering a Marriott to get the cash and ran along the streets of Durham so we could have this elusive record and drive home with it, no longer waiting for one outlet or another to re-fulfill its orders.
I'm not a romanticist about physical media; I download music all the time. I even illegally downloaded this album after we bought the record because unlike many modern LPs, it isn't packaged with a digital version. But I do not believe you can replace the feeling of running through a city to buy a record and then opening it up and perusing the contents and putting the needle on it any more than you can replace the feeling of experiencing something actually new like a Joanna Newsom album by playing your Who LPs every day for the rest of your life. The past may be fertile with revelation but there is no element of participating more divinely rewarding than to become a participant in your own culture, to find the excitement and rolling revealing shades in something that's really new, that's happening now, that will come to your neighborhood next week if you're lucky. Celebrate the golden age by all means, but don't let your own golden age pass by. Every day is something immense.
There's no question that the third disc of Have One on Me embodies a concentration of its most difficult moments. By now Newsom assumes you are invested enough to go out on a limb. But the first track is pure bliss: "Soft as Chalk," the last of my nominees for the album's best song, sounds at first blush like a tender love song but, knowing this lady, is probably something far different and far more. No matter; its winding beauty approaches Kate Bush rambles, a stirring and entirely unexpected piano solo cutting through everything. And still this is more pop music, more assured and accessible than likely anything on Newsom's first two albums. Perhaps nowhere else is her evolution so tangible. To listen to this and not be moved in some way would seem quite a challenge.
The confidence mentioned above is key, because as the record moves to its conclusion, the guard Newsom let down earlier on seems to raise itself again. Her emotions do not fray on "Esme" the way they did on "Occident," even though the song itself seems equally sad (a lullaby, it seems, for a young girl) and its arrangement (back to harp-only) more demanding. It's as though the time of mourning has already passes into resignation, as though she is writing and singing of the distant past. On the "kindness prevails" refrain, her newfound soulfulness is commanding instead of vulnerable.
"Autumn" reintroduces Newsom as the virtuostic composer of Ys, in a slightly more bite-sized 8:01. The inevitable practictioners of the "entire album at once" stunt mentioned early in this blog post will begin to lose patience here. The similarities in arrangment to "Esme" immediatly prior may mask the ample personality of the lyric and vocal. The feeling in proper mindset is of being transported. There was a time when middle America left home in droves to pick up songs evoking something so vague and ethereal as leaves falling (see Roger Williams' #1 hit "Autumn Leaves"). Newsom lets out more than one (calculated) anguished cry as she did in "In California," but the tentatively hopefuly horizon that still guided has given way to a lonely dreamscape, a once-beloved place rediscovered dead.
You could be forgiven for forgetting instantly about all the staggering melodies witnessed thus far when confronted with "Ribbon Bows," a song that in every classisist sense I can fathom is just about perfect. Lyrically, I contend this to be her best work so far, documenting and interweaving many kinds of drifting and summing it all up with the tirelessly witty "I take my doggone god to task." But more than ever, even with her harp accompanied by stereo glories, she sounds alone. (If you're looking for verification that you will love Have One on Me, I recommend downloading this track.)
The penultimate cut, "Kingfisher," probably is the most reminiscent (on all three discs) to the previous album, the audacious and delicate stunt Y's, and will be memorized and dissected by many in a similar fashion, including but not limited to those who will be driven to encyclopedias and mythology readers by its progressive trappings, the very title alluding to myth. But as for me, I think this is more than anything a continuation of the prior track's God and love questions, its winding and confusing narrative relatable both to love driven away and God brought in for questioning. Note that musically, the song (like others on disc three) repeats a motif or two from "In California." Although the lyrics are lovely to read and the melody memorable, the performance seems slightly labored, the ideas long-winded and not as personable as are the average for Have One on Me, and I would unquestionably name it as the song I've fallen in love with least. But I'm still glad it's there.
No song on Have One on Me matches the explicit "Does Not Suffice" for lyrical straightforwardness; the song is unequivocally about the breakup of the relationship in "Easy," "Good Intentions," "In California" (which it directly reprises; the entire melody is a continuation), and various others. As many have pointed out, "Easy" and "No Provenance" are also referenced in the lyric; there are more than likely other quotes that the internet has yet to notice. The final minutes of Have One on Me are a wrenching document of the last moments of a relationship, personal enough to be slightly difficult to listen to; the lines that lend the song its title are, in fact, eerily familar to me and I imagine to anyone who has ever broken up or been broken up with. By calling up the previous snapshots we've witnessed and topping them with an atypically fragile vocal, Newsom calls to mind the falling apart of a life slowly built, purpose and regret pushing her in equal measure and opposite directions. "Everywhere I tried to love you," she mourns, "is yours again and only yours." She fades away into echo and the increasingly powerful drums and strings overtake her.
Whether Joanna Newsom's third album will turn out to be her grandest statement is impossible to say this early. As broad in scope and crazily ambitious as the record might seem, it is also decidedly grounded and subtle, becoming (musically, at least) more textured and vague as it goes on. This makes it less difficult to imagine how she will follow it. But one thing seems certain to me: she will continue to surprise, restlessly and relentlessly. And in the meantime, she's given us something that is a modern marvel to be treasured, in all its weight and artful shine.