Have One on Me -- all three discs and two hours of it -- feels like the album Joanna Newsom has been waiting to make. It is the culmination of key elements of her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and her second album, Ys. In fact, those elements -- the parts of her work that have led many to call her music "epic" and to compare it and Newsom to the creations of "fantasy" writers -- resonate more strongly here. What comparisons like that try to get at, and what Have One on Me exposes, is the broad scope and compelling literary feel of Newsom's work.
In many ways, Have One on Me is really the child of Joanna Newsom's breadth of vision. This is apparent just considering the expansiveness of the album, but what's telling is that despite its length, Have One on Me doesn't at all feel overly long. Truly, the middle of the second disc feels like the middle of the album, and if it ended right there, Have One On Me would seem uneven.
This probably has something to do with the fact that Newsom's third effort is quieter and less melodically bombastic than her earlier releases. Initially, this translates to songs that are less immediately memorable and individually satisfying than her other tracks are, but it gives the album a novelistic quality. The worst songs aren't filler and they're hardly unlistenable; they're more like lulls. Songs like "Autumn" possess a kind of difficult but definitely present loveliness, but that particular song seems like it exists wholly to connect the completely wonderful "Esme" and the pleasing "Ribbon Bows."
Newsom's lyrics have always been a large point of critical scrutiny, and here she does away with a measure of her usually idiosyncratic, metaphor-heavy wordplay in exchange for startling bluntness. In what's maybe the best song of the entire album, "Go Long," Newsom addresses an ex-lover: "Who made you this way?/ Who made you this way?/ Who is going to bear your beautiful children?" In an interview with the Times Online, Newsom said that her more direct songwriting is "just a straighter path to the same truth." Still, it definitely feels different.
People have said this will be Newsom's most accessible album, as if the wonderful squeak of her former voice (the singer developed vocal nodes in spring of 2009, and after two months of near silence her voice has changed considerably) was the only thing keeping people away from her music. That's a little bit like saying Ulysses is more accessible than Dubliners because it has fewer characters. Have One on Me isn't at all a ploy for greater likability. It's an affecting, indulgent, and thoroughly fleshed-out monument to Newsom's considerable ambition. May she follow it wherever it leads.
For the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2006 album Ys, Joanna Newsom is taking the mysterious route. After the extensive coverage previous to Ys (which was understandable, considering the success of The Milk-Eyed Mender and her collaboration with Van Dyke Parks) Newsom's approach to this record is surprising. It was announced via a cryptic cartoon on Drag City's website and Newsom has yet to remark on its release. In order to prevent a leak, there will be no advance copies. The only hints as to its artistic direction come from rumors that some new songs that Newsom debuted at a secret performance in March of 2009 will be included on the album. So unless you were lucky enough to see her live since then, you'll have to wait until the release date to hear how Ms. Newsom has progressed.