...do her words really need to be broken down like formulae? I think not. Simply to escape into the world of Joanna and be incapsulated into it and applauding it is enough. And maybe not understanding completely is the more beautiful act of musical appreciation, lack of total understanding leaves the listener with a humbled nice sense of ignorant awe.― Guardian commenter
(Forgive me; I am not satisfied by ignorant awe.)
Give love a little shove and it becomes terror
Newsom is hard work. Well, Have One On Me is a map of the heart, and you shouldn’t expect those to offer themselves lightly.
The album covers the forms of love: divine or agape (tracks (3, 7, 14); filial (track 9, 14); courtly (track 2); obsessional (tracks 1, 5, 10); maternal (track 6! but touches in 1, 5, 11, 14); platonic (passionate friendship: track 8 and maybe 11); panicked (track 4); dependent (track 5, 10, 16); wilful (track 1, 16); of place (track 9); destructive (2, 8, 10, 15, 16?, 17?); forbidden (track 2); unrequited (track 18 above all, but 1, 7, 10, 15) and love of self (track 3, 4, 13). It exalts, despairs, casts about in the land.
Rock reviews miss the point in territory like this. There was a great deal written about it being a triple!! album!!!, which obscures the real way it’s ambitious; this 123-minute thing requires patience because of its richness, not its length. The length (songs 6 mins on average), her vocabulary, voice, caesura, unfamiliar instruments slow us down, and then there’s the alien allusions that leave us out, first of all.
Pretension, affectation, whimsy are just unavoidable side-effects of ambition. The lyrics work on their own as poetry, which is so rare in even the best pop music 1.
It ain’t Renaissance music, but it is sacred. (American Secular Sacred). My mate James says it’s “a book of an album. It’s Middlemarch”, and this is the case. Though, since it’s episodic and woozy and dark, I’d call it Nabokov’s Ada more. James also spits at people who emphasise the bits of her that appear Medieval - but the fact is, she is making historical music; it’s drenched in dead music. But it’s the blues; Ol’ Opry cakewalks; cabaret; parlour-music; Appalachiana; and gospel, rather than the pre-Baroque. (Gershwin > Gibbons.) Given this marinade of early American popular music and William Faulkner, Newsom sounds lasting.
I don’t listen to her for historical satisfaction. What I love about it are the many moments of perfect sound and sense, the grand hooks”. There’s so many here because the songs are so long and get the time to climb all that way up.
Man vs Life
A type of love pointedly missing in the above rundown is empathic love. Where Ys burbled with anthropomorphisations, companion animals, and a general affinity with the universe, Have One on Me, while still full of nature, is much more about the Rancher (a lonesome, domineering social product nestling in a hostile world). It’s sensual, snug, and macabre where Ys was abstract, epic, and pure.
“I hope Mother Nature has not overheard!
(Though, she doles out hurt like a puking bird.)” - You and Me, Bess
“Driven through with her own sword,
Summer died last night, alone.” - Autumn
“Wolf-spider, crouch in your funnel nest,
…have I had a hand in your loneliness?” - Go Long
“Black nose of the dog / As cold as a rifle ” - Ribbon Bows
With nature so terrible, the only safe place is civilisation, specifically the arms of someone who may or may not stay. The cover is filled with dead things: a judgmental peacock, half-plucked; a stuffed deer wearing a feather headdress; a divan draped in leopardskin - and her, langorous and deathly in the centre. And her animal motif-characters are this time uniformly malign - even Bess the horse makes “glad neighing”, at highwayman-Joanna’s hanging.
The significance is that the animals are aspects of the human characters. Newsom deals with the coldnesses, stubbornnesses or malices of the male lead and female lead via animal symbols.
- "WATERS" ( which both separates and connects two banks, or, fertility)
- THE DANGERS OF FEMININITY
11. "...my ankles are bound in gauze, sickly dressage,"
16. "My mama may be ashamed of me with all of my finery..."
18. "I have gotten into some terrible trouble / beneath your blank and rinsing gaze."
- GOD IS SHIT, the indifference of Nature
2. "like a cornered rat"
10. "my faith makes me a dope"
13. "I glare and nod, like the character, God bearing down"
14. a feared mistress
16. using your dog as your theologian
16. "When I am alone, I take my god to task"
17. "To whose authority do you consign your soul?"
FLAME / BURNING (that feel.)
Henri Rousseau, "The Dream" (1910)
The best hope for a unified story arc comes if we pick out the farm couple, seen most clearly in track 5, “No Provenance”. This easily ties into the Californian childhood arc, which is also the one who is intrigued by Lola Montez and empathises with her vengeance. My reading splits things into:
- FARM COUPLE songs (tracks 1, 5, 17, and 18) most clearly, but the others fit pretty well.
- ALLEGORIES (tracks 2, 3, 8, 11, 17). Aye; more allegorical than usual.
Who are ‘the farm couple’ then? She is a grown woman on earth variously known as “Lola”; a mad horse; Birch’s mother; Dick Turpin; a Nevadan; Esme’s adorer; “slow-heart”; Joanna Newsom. I’ll call her J.
He is, variously: “King Ludwig I”; “dragon”; “Bess”; Bluebeard; a magpie and a bluejay; a wolf-spider; a “silly goose”; “long-life”; and various hinted-at male celebrities whom I’m not interested in gaping at. Call him B.
We’ve only clues. I say “Newsom” when I mean “the songwriter”, and “J” for the protagonist - nothing more presumptuous (history is just organised gossip).
I don’t believe in overreading. Interpretations are second-order features, and if you honestly see [x] in a thing, then [x] is there.
The album has an arc: from the courting of “Easy” to the final moving out of the shared apartment in “It Does Not Suffice”. Each disc has its own subarc too (consider the mood swing between “Esme” and the next track), but I’m less clear on those.
1. Easy (6:01)
Heavy with gospel tones - "there's a river made of light"; "you must not fear / speak my name and I appear" - and a properly obsessive love, but they're masked by the jaunty piano and the witty backing strings, drums, and winds.
Title's a shushing; think whispering to a jittery horse (your partner). She taunts and pleads for love, promises him all sorts. She's trying, desperately trying...to show that it will be easy. She feels "tested", he's "pained". Her man is compared unfavourably to a frog, who has stamina, goes courting all day.
I love the little Wittgenstein line at the end of the first verse; "we are blessed and sustained by what is not said", but it is terrible self-delusion.
@0:00 - That voice, from space
@0:48 - Piano touches down, too.
@1:20 - two-part Epiphany: Strings add prim mischief;
@1:30 - drums enter
@2:09 - left alone again
@3:14 - lovely flute licks
@3:22 - Glory horns distract from terrifying telling B to "give your life."
@3:33 - back down
@4:47 - Reset; she calms her pleas.
@5:30 - Jaunty, lazy horns and killer strings, out.
The Bloody Mary reference is dark beyond its namesake, too: like some ghost, she only feels real when she has his attention - "I am barely here... speak my name and I appear."
2. Have One on Me (11:02)
Parts are sung in the voices of the life-large dancer/adventurer Lola Montez and of Ludwig I, a King of Bavaria. It cycles around, through flashbacks, getting more and more hallucinatory until /- she snaps back to clarity (returns to the opening). About her arrogance and her suffering, dancing on the thread of the music.
King Louis is daddy longlegs (a fly) and Lola thinks herself baby longlegs. Others ("Jesuits") see an immoral, gold-digging predator, dancing the tarantella before the King, a "shrieking six-legged millionaire".
Montez toured Nevada after her flirt with Euro nobility, and it's not hard to see Newsom dancing around parallels between herself and Lola - an "innovative female performer in the West". (Note that Newsom writes Lola not as the opportunist flirt that many accounts depict, but a wronged, heartbroke woman in a malign world). Despite Bavaria being the setting, it's Nevada, really...
@1:40 - Up suddenly, cheeky tambura line and a tarantella beat
@2:42 - that weird chord break again (jump in time?). Metonymy - she is her brassiere.
@3:14 - Pensive, sweet scheming.
@4:00 - There is nothing I adore apart from that whore's black heart.
@5:40 - Are you with me?
@6:10 - Epiphany! Will carry on; recorders at the wedding. Drums!
@6:40 - The descent. Have one...
@8:34 - Up. Modulates, recovers jauntiness
@9:05 - Up. Tarantella. (drums are the spiders, too.)
@9:48 - The choir are decapitated; we're slammed back into 0:01, as if Lola just woke up...
The most powerful reading is that, some time after Louis jilts her for political and selfish reasons, Lola tries to poison Louis (and maybe herself too). Throughout the last half of the song - where the humiliation and rejection plays out - she repeatedly encourages him to "have one on me", and it's an amazing idea that this is a sleight to murder someone. ("Mud in your eye" is both a toast and a "fuck you".) This reading only sticks if we also have someone else ("the blackguard") convicted for the crime and get beheaded for treason. In any case, the attempt fails:
(i.e. the dead food taster has served his purpose. Stretching the metaphor, this could be a mutual friend harmed by the breakup.) If this gruesomeness holds, what comes out? Remember, this is the titular theme - it should cover the whole album:
(Each highly desirable, sometimes)
From which we derive littler themes like "relationships as intoxication", "heartbreak as an inevitable hangover", and all the alcoholism, vice and gluttony of love, and maybe the homeopathy idea that it takes a poison to cancel another'n. (see "Jackrabbits") Note also that she "dies" in tracks 2, 5, 8, 12 (and speaks to a phantom in 6; is in Eden/Hell in 3; and reacts to a death in 10)
3. '81 (3:51)
@0:08 - "Dirt is all the same" - I know someone who'd see this as "emotions are universally uniform". (:
@0:25 - lovely scale picking
@2:32 - top of the harp's range sounds like a music-box, piercing, brittle.
@2:36 - "Even muddiest waters run" - we move on from most things, eventually.
"St George" and the "dragon" could be B and another of J's partners (Kingfisher?).
A nod to independence, for a change? -
"Farewell to loves that I known"
"I shall want for nothing more." Content in oneself for once, though also "I'm inviting everyone"
4. Good Intentions Paving Co. (7:01)
Tremendous fun - full of Sam Cooke, puns, energy, and WWII girlgroup harmony. This is the one that gets called "poppy", I suppose because reviewers were just glad to get something easier to listen to. "And I did not mean to shout 'Just drive! Just get us out, dead or alive!'
A road too long to mention
- Lord, it's something to see,
Laid down by the Good Intentions Paving Co."
@1:11 - just by adding a frigging tambourine, listen to beat change
@1:31 - banjo breaks in, piano drops out @1:47 - back,
@2:00 - Epiphany! Til the noise; and up.
@3:11 - bouzouki?
@3:28 - Down. Peace that only Hammond organ brings.
@5:30 - Up, up, up. Coda; neat little jam, trombone on out. Banjo comes back in, bringing his friend Hammond. Piano gets insubordinate, plonking chords.
Deciding to love. (Is love surrender? Fuck knows; to the sea!) Road to hell's westbound, and it's made of deciding to drive home together instead of fly. But now home is unfamiliar, and J's "heart cannot drive", she's dependent on getting B to do it. Agitation & uncertainty - but now she's locked in to the relationship (en route) but still unsure (gotten lost, gotten jumpy about the destination).
- "I said to ya 'honey, just open your heart' / when I've got trouble even opening a honey jar"
- "I can see you're wearing your staying hat, darlin"
- "Auld Lang / Syne, sealed, delivered I sang"
- "You ranged real hot and cold... I am at home on that range"
Entering a relationship as "folding", giving up a round of cards? And: road metaphor, the two of them - "the course I keep"; "right here in the right lane". And "I'm sold". It's on.
5. No Provenance (6:25)
"Allelu, allelu, I have died happy".
But there's trouble yet. They go for a walk; Rome collapses in their absence! (The farm, unguarded empire of their love...) He sees it coming.
@0:40 - Rapture - the peace of arms, arms.
@1:45 - "the Big Return"; an argument unsettled?
@2:26 - wistful oboe, haunting her.
@3:00 - oy, always with the "arms".
@4:04 - Modulates. The horse strikes, to a sweet, patronising trio.
@5:35 - "muzzle of a ghost", like Bloody Mary in Easy...
@5:59 - Commands him to lay her down...
Lying together in a field, they're set upon by an "etiolated", skittish little horse. (J: her doubt and discontentment.) It tries to escape, but the gate holds fast. Neither J nor her partner have much sympathy for the struggling animal (as usual, we resent our doubts). He accepts the horse's distress, just "nodding sadly". She wonders what he knows, what he's planned, his signed-and-sealed 'arrangement with Fate'. Ain't convinced. J asks to be led - she can't find her own way - back to the farm, to resume the certainty of his arms.
She calls him Johnny Appleseed, the folk hero - horse-kind - but a committed bachelor too.
6. Baby Birch (9:30)
"How about them engine breaks?
And, if I should die before I wake,
will you keep an eye on Baby Birch?
Because I'd hate to see her
make the same mistakes."
Baby Birch herself is best seen as a miscarried relationship.I adore the idea of child as embodiment of a relationship - though of course they're sometimes a memento dolori. J had assumed much, that they would have time, that they'd last. And she's not quite mourning - she imagines meeting the grown-up Baby Birch, in another "path" (possible world).
@1:55 - "bulletproof cars" compared to the vulnerable vehicle of a (pregnant) body.
@3:21 - Harp vamp. Dignified acceleration.
@4:18 - Down. Back.
@5:55 - Vamp returns.
@6:22 - Handclaps make the stage light up.
@6:45 - Gets rowdy - Morgan adds voice, and +his drums, makes a torrent
@7:36 - Down, just harp. "Be at peace"
@8:25 - Lovely mandolin/recorder bridge -> theme -> out
"Dirty lake"... The goose might have beenan exception to HOOM's animals being unempathic - J calls the defensive, nesting mother "poor little cousin" - but then her offspring are dismissed as "dregs".
Ends on a violent nursery rhyme. There's some abortion-worthy images, but it doesn't cohere. This cooing mother makes her own furs; J skins a rabbit alive, which runs off "as they're liable to do". Her violence is desperate - trying to make it stop kicking, make it stay, make it hers. Rabbit is the baby is a relationship she had hoped would last and grow; instead, finally, she skins it and lets it run. An exorcism, instead ("be at peace and be gone").
Beginning the great rewrite, the great skin-shedding which getting out of love requires.
7. On a Good Day (1:48)
The key wordplay is "good day" - as in a clear day, elevated and seeing far ahead; but also as in untroubled. They only communicate properly "on a good day" now: once in a while...
@0:21 - "for. the. re. main. der" - where else do you hear this sweet plod but in hymns?
@1:02 - gets her crone voice on
@1:36 - Stunning strength: "leave me be so that we can stay true/To the path that you have chosen"
8. You and Me, Bess (7:12)
There's a vague betrayal ("I believe you were not lying"), a closed trial, and a hanging, at which J's forgiveness is heartbreaking.
@0:00 - J ghosts the trumpet melody.
@3:00 - Epiphany! Duet, the beautiful moment of capture.
@4:30 - Sweet harp defiance on the gallows.
@5:08 - Heroic, perverse horns
@5:35 - Epiphany! Humble bravery.
@6:00 - La-la-la into the dark.
But the harp chords are insistent and positive throughout, J Turpin's shrugging, gallows optimism. J dramatizes the breakup, tries to absolve him; accepts the sentence anyhow.
9. In California (8:01)
Can't shake him. J pretends to have everything just as she wants: 'home'. She's learning it properly for the first time, even. Tells him to leave her alone - and looks forward to him disobeying. She has "sown untidy furrows across her soul", been "pulling artlessly with fool commands" in moving on abruptly and categorically. Ain't working.
Two reasons you ignore a thing: either it's not important or you wish it weren't.
@1:09 - Epiphany! "it feels like some kind of mistake"
@1:25 - tick-tock modulates to D-add4th ...
@1:42 - horn swell into...
@1:53 - Epiphany!...sudden mood change - "But there is another..."
@2:26 - theme introduced
@3:00 - Epiphany! "I have sown untidy furrows cross my soul"
@3:14 - "SoOmetimes" theme
@3:46 - tick-tock returns
@4:18 - develops! (piano, bass, and drum enter)
@4:49 - back to the theme. "Pick off my goldfish / From their sorry golden state"
@5:22 - Epiphany! An oil drum!; strings enter from behind
@5:45 - ...and collapse
@6:45 - strings launch the bird out the window, cawing weirdly
@7:30 - drum+vocal break
@7:47 - tension drops out; a little syncopated guitar
@ End - an Axl Rose vocal gliss(!)
Ends on the admission; "it has half ruined me to be hanging around here...I am native to it, but I'm overgrown." Where do you go when home isn't home anymore?
A magnificent easter egg: the first 8 tracks total 53 minutes - then here, just before the 60min mark she cries "Like a little clock that trembles on the edge of the hour / Only ever calling out 'cuckoo! cuckoo!'."
10. Jackrabbits (4:22)
It can have no bounds, you know.
It can have no end...
...And it can change in shape or form,
But never change in size.
The water it runs deep, my darlin,
Where it don't run wide.
@Fairly uniform, but picks up vigour at
@2:02 - Flourishes; declarations.
@2:50 - Resorts to folk medicine and the Bible. "You will be free" is never bad counsel.
"Telling you I can" becomes "tell me that I can" - she has gone over to B's door: is standing there, asking.
Echo from track 4's road: "like a rope gone slack".
11. Go Long (8:02)
You were a prince...
Who will take care of you..?
There's a man who only will speak in code,
backing slowly, slowly down the road.
May he master everything that such men may know
about loving, and then letting go."
Ornate and sickly - the title and lyrics are sports metaphors; there's a Bluebeard reference and other grisly things. The song is a charm for a man, one she's oddly subservient to (pardoning his violences and self-isolation). Masculinity viewed from outside.
Much was made of the "kora vs harp duel" in this, but it is of course no such thing. There is a power struggle, but it's J&B against B. (Each has their own melody.) Peering into your partner, coping with and treating the pieces you can see.
"We both want the very same thing -
We are praying I am the one to save you"
B's pet name here, wolf-spiders are solitary; the other pet names she gives him ("goose", "bluejay" and "magpie") are all species that mate for life.
@0:00 - Cloying feel...who wants to hear your bad dreams?..
@2:37 - Enter frantic, baroque kora part. (->@3:08) The Mekong runs through Vietnam. ...there's a horrible napalm image comes to me.
@3:08 - Nursing, talking "Grope your little nurse".
@4:07 - Bastard kora comes back.
@5:44 - Kora again dischords. Bluebeard's chamber; a room full of woman's teeth
@6:38 - Kora is hushed. A blessing, & more unsettling kora -> out.
There's only so close you can get. And with some - "mighty men" say - there's no piercing the veil.
"This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow,
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go."
12. Occident (5:31)
something is moving, just out of frame
breaching slowly across the sea, one mast
- a flash, like the stinger of a bee -
to take you away, a swarming fleet is
gonna take you from me
What's left of her feelings, dealt with one way or other.
@Whole piece progresses simply, but:
@1:13 - "smoke me out of my hiding place" (...that is, out of 'California'. )
@2:41 - "Slow-heart, brace and aim" ['at me']; next comes the order to fire.
@4:00 - Drums blunder in, two-beat.
@4:09 - Epiphany! (Callout this"Long-life" fucker)
@4:32 - What passes for ostentation in track 12 (slow jazz)
Mixed message. One last chance..? "State your case".
13. Soft As Chalk (6:29)
We get fun, & focus regained, after disc 2's predominating drunkness and pain. Still looking back, but empowered this time (feel the piano syncopating: matches track 4's giddy engine ostinato). J goes home again, and though there's still trouble ("sadness beyond anger and beyond fear") and boredom, this time it's hers.
@1:19 - Up. Epiphany! Lawlessness
@ - Life in nature; soporific, but life
@2:44 - 3:01 - Spry piano breakdown
@3:12 - Dramatic climb
@3:30 - Epiphany. The way she says "there" (theyoh) kills me, and no doubt the bear too.
@4:00 - Calms down, only so we can start piling on drums
@4:19 - "Give love a little shove and it becomes terror"
@4:47 - Grandstanding modulation. The best TV theme you'll find this side of the Sacramento.
@5:55 - Did Jerry Lee ever sing about airports? Nvm; it's covered.
An upbeat RnB romp against love. Regretting having put herself through all that. As if the options were: 1. Freedom, & Loneliness or 2. Stability, & Entrapment
14. Esme (7:55)
She's stunned into a different place by seeing her friend's newborn. "Just what you have done." The child is a kite, a flying symbol for her. Her voice is tiny, the harp defers; J goes and hides in "branches" afterwards - a bird watching a birth and poring over its significance.
@1:55 - a shock of syncopation, pickup
@2:50 - "Maykindness abound!" - drunk on the child, she commands the world, a prophet.
@3:03 - Epiphany! exquisite 6/8 arpeggios.
@3:30 - Back to syncop, getting wild, celebrating for everyone
@4:08 - "Each phantom limb lost" - past loves remain with her, like amputations do. But even they are less lonely, in this light.
@4:36 - KINDNESS, damnit.
@5:36 - "Clean as a breeze, bright as the day" - offensively nice.
@6:23 - Epiphany! Tiny soul-octave on "If you are blue"
Self-reference: "I search for words to set you at ease" - so it's a gift to Esme, a blessing against her future being blue. A proper epiphany (none of my glorifying a few seconds of pop music); your perspective on the world realigned and buoyed up by a new, tiny piece of information.
15. Autumn (8:01)
"I'll winter here, wait for a sign / To cast myself out, over the water, / riven like a wishbone."
Tearing herself in half, here - wanting to stay and also to go back to him. It's not clear which half of her is the lucky half, which the useless bit of the chicken's collar.
Compare the rain in "Esme" -
"It's a beautiful town, with the rain coming down"
- with, here:
"rain...lists down on the gossiping lawns, saying tsk, tsk, tsk."
@1:28 - optimism, like a break in the clouds
@3:31 - mind-rhyme - "no control / over my heart, over my mind."
@3:58 - UP! This time the optimism clears the bastard sky.
@4:58 - song suddenly bursts (jarring key change). We veer offroad.
@5:18 - bursts again
@5:39 - bursts again
@6:30 - "I loved them all, one by one" (as Lola with her flies)
@7:21 - Crashing, scale down. -> Wry flourish.
16. Ribbon Bows (6:10)
J goes to a dog pound, picks up an "old hangdog" (Kingfisher? Long-life?) and makes do. Rolls in bad habits and lost-and-lorn revelry.
Compare "For Pete's sake, what you have told me, I cannot erase!"
with Easy's "Tell me your worries, I want to be told."
@1:28 - nice mandolin frill
@3:30 - Echoing strings, ride cymbal (oddly un-Newsom)
@4:00 - Massive shift, drama and nighttime mania
@4:20 - Bellowing at the dog about God.
@4:34 - Vaguely Celtic lick there
"Carrying on, whooping it up til the early morn
Lost and lorn among the madding revelry
Sure, I can pass / honey, I can pass
Particularly when I start / To tip my glass"
(cf "Atlantis", by Auden)
"Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise."
17. Kingfisher (9:11)
Kingfisher/"Pro-heart" is perhaps the lover she took after breaking up with B - he's also "St George" from '81. She discusses the farm love with K, in his new arms..
Renaissance & Oriental frill. References Book of Revelation (end of a relationship is an end of the world).
18. Does Not Suffice (6:44)
Focusses on beautiful things going away, out of sight, into storage. She, who has let herself be these clothes and finery at some points in the album. Vocals are delicate, but not sulking. He is made to "deny the evidence" of something, probably simply his lack of commitment. She pictures him as Lady Macbeth, even: "scouring yourself red". And it's her that is leaving. She's had enough: it does not suffice to merely lie beside each other, as those who love each other do. Dignity of sadness.
@1:00 - Crushing admission.
@1:42 - "sweet farewell" eee!
@3:10 - The piano is more than it seems; she times it for certain phrases, slows the spread of certain chords.
@5:00 - Only here, after she has finished her lyrics (her packing-up) are other instruments allowed in. Strings enter, take her gently by the shoulders and steer her away; the band slowly overwhelm it all. Once again she "la la las" out.
@5:39 - Strange staccato chords, drums and electric violin (almost Amerindian)
@6:08 - Explosion is allowed to reverberate, decay. Faltering pedal.
"In California" is the named reprise; "It Does Not" has its middle chords (D-G-B-G) and switches IC's theme to a stripped-down, heavily struck piano. They share melodies: "I have sown untidy furrows..." and outro. But there's more returning than just that. Hear also:
- "Baby Birch": same chords (D-G-B-G).
- "You and Me, Bess": the album's other "la la la"s.
- "No Provenance": "bales" and "burn" point back to it; the Farm Couple.
- "Good Intentions"
- And "Easy" above all - she is removing from the house "everything that could remind you of how easy I was not" - this last song is the final collapse of the promising from the first track. The best laid plan, awry.
Life sort of goes on.
An overview: she has been a trembling, shrill, unhinged, cutesy, baffling, slurring, feminine battering ram of voice. There's scarcely a nonchalant or boring word across four albums' worth of music. Her vowels elongate until they snap into a thick crack of consonants.
She ranges, real hot and real cold - wide emotion, pitch, rhythm, as well as form, like:
- hushed confessions,
- recital, as if reading against her will
- weathered and toothless, aged Texas Gladden (esp. track 2)
- plodding homophony of hymns
- repetitive gumption of blues
- Kate Bush-banshee-psyche folk-Appalachian-choral-classical-nuts
- nebulous whirl of modern folk
- clout of stage Musicals
- jauntiness of early jazz
- the high winsomeness of country-and-western's women
- Her enuciation gets mesmerizing - it hypnotizes and makes me frantic. (What did she say? "Hydrosyphilitic?" It was drowned by the whooping...) She plays with a Southern accent in places, hushing and cawing. Better than this is the colloquial, literary/slang language it brings, defying time ("Satellite feeds" and the Grand Ole Opry). More though, she throws clusters of words, crimping and distending her syllables. ("Par-tick-kyoo-lar-ly")
- Her diction is bloody weird, too. In poetry, it's called caesura - a linebreak - but Newsom's are radical - breaks and lags come midphrase, midword, unpredictably and without much regard for trad emphasis.
("Down in the shallow ///// - gutter,")
("My pleasure-seeking ///// AMONG the tall pines")
("now you can see me fall ///// back here redoubled...") Key, glorious lyrics ("it seems I have stolen a horse") get scudded right over and are easy missed.
* Her intervals (pitches and beats) are spiky - she uses the sudden octave-leaping of C20th avantgarde music (yeah, the ones designed to disturb us). * There's a thing that you can do with an electric guitar (flick a string up and outwards with your thumb...), a "pinched harmonic" - a sudden, unearthly spike in pitch. A certain kind of metal-music is enamoured of them, but Newsom's is the only voice I've ever heard that tries for it. Far fewer in HOOM; see the opening note of "Only Skin" on Ys... * I have a friend who uses "warble" as an insult, a catch-all for singing he dislikes. Others might call it warm-timbre vibrato. There's a word in opera, "melisma" (multiple notes per syllable). I can't remember its equivalent term in rhythm, but let's be clear: Newsom stretches English out - it takes a deal of reconstruction til the lyrics will be intelligible to you. Track 14, "Es-a-me, es-a-me" caused some confusion before it was officially titled. ("Sweet as a man?")
- Hers is an unforgiving tone; she won't wait for you to get used to one enunciation before she changes it completely. She's often bizarre, and obscures her own lyrics. She's worth it because she means it - and because she does mean it, the music lends itself to you, and lets you mean it. * It's a stretch to describe Texas Gladden as a siren:
"I realized that [Texas Gladden's] voice was conventionally not beautiful and yet it was SO worthy of being listened to, and so affecting. Before that, I knew that I wanted to make music and I knew that I had things to sing about, and I knew that I could employ my voice, to whatever degree it was polished, in my songs and do something with it that I wanted to do with it. But something about hearing her sing was a comfort."
He's got a particular jazz-born genius, but it's more obvious live. He makes the first disc ring out, then retreats from disc 2 except his star turn in "In California". His drumwork is the album's weather or stage design. They thunder (In California) and give the upbeat (Good Intentions) a tailwind. And, in the plaintive explosion that closes the album, they're the sound and fury that J is too undone to have.
I roam around the tidy grounds of my dappled sanatorium
Coatless I sit amongst the motes adrift and I dote upon my pinesap gum
And the light through the pines in brassy tines lays over me, dim as rum
And thick as molasses, and so time passes
And so, my heart, tomorrow comes
I feel you leaning out back with the crickets
Loyal heart marking the soon-ness, darkness tonight
Still, the mourning doves will summon us their song
Of love's neverdoneing lawlessness