It can be difficult to listen to Joanna Newsom’s music. It is at once oddly withdrawn and deeply intimate. Her main instrument is a harp, which can’t be described these days without saying things like “arcane,” which conjure up a foreign time, or “Celtic,” “Moroccan” or “Oriental,” which conjure up a foreign place. While her first album, The Milk Eyed Mender, happily stretched the limits of a three minute melody her next album, Ys, took fifty-five minutes to get through only five songs. Have One On Me spans two hours and three LPs. As for the subject matter;
So the muddy mouths of baboons and sows and the grouse and the horse and the hen
Grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen
And the mail is late and the great estates are not lit from within
The talk in town’s becoming downright sickening,
from the first track on Ys, is not nearly her most allegorical lines. They are, however, only a few lines of a twelve minute long song in which she hardly stops for a quarter rest. She wanders between varied histories, personal, political, literary and mythical. At this point it in her career she sounds more anachronistic singing about packing up a car than about meandering the garden of Eden, breaking “our hearts, in the war between St. George and the dragon.”
And then there is her voice. It is arresting, to say the least. If you are listening you can’t avoid it; you can’t exactly have a conversation over it; if you’ve heard more than a few lines you can’t help but form an opinion of it, even if you don’t want to share it. Her voice changes suddenly, dramatically, within the same song, and sounds as unhurried as earlier it had sounded rushed. At one moment it sounds sharp, cutting. Next it sounds supple, soft.
“Accessibility” is a word that is thrown around by indie music reviewers in the same way Real Estate agents throw around “rustic charm” and “quaint.” It basically means that the music would likely be appealing to those not already reading the type of review that would use the word “accessible” to describe the “sound” of the band. Like Real Estate agents, indie reviewers are both selling something and concealing something, but whereas Real Estate agents are selling physical property, indie reviewers are pitching ideas. What they are concealing is a fear that a certain type of music, if pushed out of its original context, might fall apart. Since “indie” now more readily denotes a notion of self, a style of self consciousness, than any particular sound, it has become more susceptible, as a movement, of either fracturing or becoming mainstream.
In this light Joanna Newsom appears to be an enigma. Her soggy, old, feral moods are oddly sincere, and sincerity is timeless, but then what other generation could find her “sound” so attractive? Of course, to be obsequious we first have to be somewhat baffled. That she is difficult, that you have to sit (for a while) sifting through layers of melodic lines and thick, severe poetry in order to make any sense of her music is perhaps her greatest appeal to those in a time overwrought with the tension between heady individualism and muscly traditionalism. She either sits, harp in hand, utterly outside of the conflicts wrestling for the identity of her form of art, or squarely in the center. Have One On Me doesn’t provide much reason to suspect one direction or the other, but you can imagine-and hear-her patiently, persistently working through profound questions similar, if not the same, to those troubling the varied worlds-large and small; divine and worldly; musical and mute- surrounding her.