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Album review: Joanna Newsom, 'Have One on Me'

February 22, 2010 |  3:19 pm

Joanna Newsom is a hard act to follow. Turn that phrase around in your head for a minute, as you would a tarnished knickknack, or one of Newsom's own lyrics, assembled from fable and casual conversation and just those kinds of clichés. It has two meanings, and both apply.

In her young career, Newsom has burst free of the traditions that inspire her -- visionary California folk-rock, post-Kate Bush femme pop, fairy tales and modernist literature -- to assert a voice that seems totally singular, an end in itself. Her distinctiveness begins with her unusual primary instrument, the pedal harp, and extends to her long and winding song structures, her allusive but hard-to-track lyrics, and a voice that inspires a thousand metaphors (wood sprite, elf, child, chickadee), none quite right.

Newsom's music can't be duplicated. It's also very hard to grasp, despite being pretty and often inviting. Her last album, "Ys," was a song cycle orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks that laid story upon story like the magical text in "The Saragossa Manuscript," touching on life's biggest subjects: desire, death, the natural world's pull on human consciousness. Her new three-disc set goes even further into that subject matter, and is even harder to track.

Yet it's an easier listen. Apart from its two-hour length, "Have One on Me" aims to be . . . accessible is the wrong word, so let's say palpable. Sensual, with the breadth and variety that music offers when you're dancing to it, or listening in bed, not sitting in a concert hall.

Some songs feature just Newsom and her harp; on others, she's at the piano. Newsom's touring bandmate Ryan Francesconi has crafted arrangements that subtly highlight the many changing elements in these collaborations, from horns to banjo to street corner/campfire backing vocals. Grooves bubble up now and then.

The variety here suits the set's overarching theme of coupling and uncoupling. (At least that's the one that asserts itself first in a work overflowing with ideas.) Starting with "Easy," a song about "my man and me," and concluding with "Does Not Suffice," in which Newsom packs up her feminine finery and walks away, "Have One on Me" explores what intimate partnership offers, and what it costs.

Most tracks seem like love songs at first listen. Newsom uses the songwriter's default mode to explore how traditional love, for women, can be both the beginning and the end of possibility: a way to escape home and be exiled from it; to welcome children or be burdened by fertility; to be entrusted with secrets, or betrayed.

Newsom's current beau is comic Andy Samberg and her last was the musician Bill Callahan -- that gossip is relevant, since several songs here hint at the problems that can afflict a two-career couple. But as seemingly personal as Newsom's accounts of hunger, heartache and risk can be, she's never just writing about some guy. She goes deep, as deep as any artist working today, into the loud forest of stories where our ideas about love and the self are born. Her trail of crumbs isn't always obvious, but you can follow her there.

-- Ann Powers

Joanna Newsom
"Have One on Me"
Drag City
Four stars