Joanna Newsom meanders through 2-hour triple album of indie-folk songs

What Listen, Dammit, would really like to know is why Joanna Newsom felt it necessary to release so much music all at once.

“Have One On Me” (Drag City), the latest from the California indie-folk singer and harpist, is a two-hour affair (three discs in its physical form), full of the meandering pastoral meditations that dominated her previous release, 2006’s “Ys.”

Although it received a rapturous reception in hipster circles, “Ys” was a difficult record: five songs, ranging in length from 7 to 16 minutes, with orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks and nary a melodic motif or lyric refrain to be found. It was like an album-length version of “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” a vignette from Jethro Tull’s 1973 album “A Passion Play.”

Despite its length, “Have One On Me” feels less monolithic. That stems in part from lighter orchestration (Parks wasn’t involved this time) that emphasizes piano over ponderous strings, and also from more bite-sized songs that don’t require half an afternoon to digest.

In fact, the shorter songs are a lifeline here. Every time Newsom rambles on about daddy long legs or whatever, woodwinds twirling around her filigreed, quavering voice (think of an old lady on a forest walk, ceaselessly nattering to woodland creatures), there’s a song where the end is in sight of the beginning, which forces her to get to the point.

That is, without fail, a good thing. Sharper focus results in lilting songs like “’81,” which comes and goes like a gentle summer breeze, arpeggios rising and falling along with her sighing voice. Newsome summons a hummable melody for “On a Good Day,” a quiet, intimate song; and she sings softly and sweetly on “Jackrabbit.”

After reveling in her brevity, the longer compositions start to seem scattershot and, ultimately, somewhat self-absorbed. Maybe she’s making a larger point that we’re simply missing, but even if that’s true, did she really need two hours to make it?

(Photo by Annabel Mehran)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *