I Love You, Joanna Newsom

And I don’t care if the whole world knows it

by Will Vunderink, editor; illustration by Becca Levi, staff artist

I have a crush on Joanna Newsom. Yes, that Joanna Newsom. The songwriting, harp-toting, hyper-literary prose-quoting Joanna Newsom.

Have you ever listened to her music? Her first album came out in 2004, so she hasn’t been around long. She had a sort of Renaissance Faire aura about her for a while—that’ll happen when your primary instrument is the harp—that she’s recently been shedding for a hipper, more stylish and approachable image. Gone are the velvet dresses and elfin hair—lo and behold, she’s hot. It’s like when your best friend’s geeky little sister comes back from being a counselor at summer camp one year during high school, and all of the sudden she’s way too attractive to be your best friend’s little sister.

Newsom’s voice is off-putting to many. It reaches chipmunk-like heights and warbles its way through her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, a sort of fairy-land dream with some really great songs. Mender drew mainly on peripheral (read: eccentric and not popular) aspects of the pastoral folk tradition, which made many critics deride Newsom’s music as overly campy. And though campiness is certainly a part of what she’s doing, these critics are missing the endearing honesty to it all. Her next album, Ys, stretched out the songs but cut down the track list to five. Ys features substantial string arrangements and a super-nerdy painting of her decked out in full Renaissance garb on its cover.

The title of her following EP—Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band—emphasized her sense of humor and made it apparent that there were more sides to her than fantasy-world fandom and harp playing. It also removed Newsom from the singular stature she’d created for herself with the out-of-left-field character of her music by self-consciously placing her in a musical tradition surprisingly far off from her own: Bruce Springsteen never played the harp, and Newsom has never sung anthems about life in Jersey.

She released a triple album at the end of February called Have One On Me. It’s eighteen tracks long and her most impressive release yet. The seductive title of the album points to her recent transformation, as does the cover: it features her sprawled on a couch in a somewhat suggestive pose, wearing eye shadow and bright red lipstick, surrounded by a cultural mish-mash of knick-knacks and oddities—masks, animal figurines, peacock tails, lamps, pieces of clothing, and objects of unidentifiable origin or purpose.

The album is undeniably great; it’s perhaps less varied stylistically than her first, but the songs are more consistent, complex, and well-executed. The album is fantastically cohesive, even at over two hours. And it contains some of her very best songs: What you might call the centerpiece of the album, the seven-minute “Good Intentions Paving Company,” is utterly beguiling.

It begins with a simple piano figure, a pleasing chord progression. Newsom’s voice—less weird than before, but not about to convert any nonbelievers—enters soon enough. And then—oh my God—that chorus, in its first iteration of many. Fluttering vibrato in heavenly three-part harmony. A catchy-as-hell progression that rises, builds joyously, and releases.

Percussion gains momentum in the background. The still-minimal instrumentation builds bit-by-bit. All of a sudden, the chorus ends and we’re in soul territory—an organ kicks in, then a tambourine, then a one-two drumbeat mimicking the piano’s octaves, and we might as well be in a Gospel church. Newsom belts it (to the best of her ability) like she means it.

You expect and want the song to keep gaining momentum. But then the percussion stops altogether, an acoustic guitar and banjo start pickin’, and it feels just like Slocum quad on the second Saturday of eighth block, until everything comes back together for the second glorious chorus.

This time around it’s fleshed out with instruments and voices and lasts twice as long. The lyrics are new in each chorus, and its circular swell and release never gets tiring. Newsom draws out her vowels in the next verse, cleverly illustrating the longing expressed in lines like, “For the time being all is well / Won’t you love me a spell?” and one that considers “all the weight of the thing we’ve been playing at.”

We glide through the seamless transitions into and out of bluegrass bliss once more, and then everything but Newsom’s voice, piano, and organ cuts out. You can hear faint echoes of embarrassing seventies ballads here, but this section is so intimate and its lyrics so heartfelt that it’s hard to feel cynical when listening to it. It starts right around the song’s halfway mark and takes up a considerable chunk of the second half, with muted trumpet, delicate guitar accents, and light percussion joining in as it progresses.

The whole song is the story of an uncertain relationship told through her description of her thoughts during a car ride with a lover, and in this section we get a direct look at the tricky love stuff. Newsom sings about how “no amount of talking / Is going to soften the fall,” about hesitation regarding the relationship and its “hot and cold” nature, folding at the top of her game, trying and failing to do things right, feeling old, and similar themes—in other words, the lyrical content of thousands of terrible songs. It’s a testament to Newsom’s songwriting talent—both melodically (it’s beautiful) and lyrically (the girl can write)—that none of it comes off as sentimental or cliché, and that it all ends up feeling quite powerful.

She ends the slow section with a single thought around which the whole emotional landscape of the song coheres. All of the aforementioned tribulations are a shame “when I only want for you to pull over and hold me / ‘til I can’t remember my own name.” Any time, Joanna. Any time. These last lines of the song are a beautiful moment of clarity among complex and confounding feelings and ideas. Her phrasing is almost heartbreaking.

There’s a pause as the last melancholy chord fades and we’re left to ponder the lyrics we’ve just heard. The tempo picks up again as the chorus enters one last time. There are no lyrics this time around, and Newsom instead hums the vocal melodies. This chorus is restrained but more cathartic than ever before, because of its context—words would not do justice to this ecstatic release from the somber feel of the previous section. We meditate briefly on the story she’s told us, and she frees us from it.

The song fades out with stutter-step drums, jazzy trumpet, almost honky-tonk piano, and an organ holding everything together. It’s a loose, playful exit after the brilliantly crafted structures and melodies of the last six and a half minutes. You get the feeling that the players could happily improvise forever around this same chord progression, and, more importantly, you want them to. ∼

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1 Comment

Filed under Love/Lust, Review

One response to “I Love You, Joanna Newsom

  1. I couldn’t agree more. That was a fantastic review, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that “Good Intentions” sends into simultaneous convulsions of joy and sadness.

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