Covered: Joanna Newsom’s “Have One on Me”

Cover to Have One on Me (Drag City, 2010); image courtesy of seajellyexhibit.blogspot.com

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve long been on the fence about Joanna Newsom. I remember playing “Bridges and Balloons” from The Milk-Eyed Mender once when I was still at KVRX. Her name had been bandied about in hushed, reverent tones by fellow deejays and I had to find out who was causing this kind of fuss. Upon first listen, I promptly thought to myself, “what is this art school pixie nattering on about? Is this some Nell shit? More like Joanna Nuisance.” Immediately after the song finished, a female listener called to thank me for playing the song, espousing its beauty with complete sincerity. Yeesh. Point taken, sister. I took a little more time with Ys, but wasn’t converted.

My flippancy might seem unjustified given my professed adoration for Björk, and I recognize that. Bottom line: I respected that Newsom was a rare talent, but I didn’t get her appeal. In theory, I’m down with Lisa Simpson playing a harp, but actual listening didn’t beget actual enjoyment.

So when I found out Newsom’s long-awaited follow-up would be a triple album, I was like “ho boy, that’s going to be a lot of obscure words and ululating.”

It is, but in a great way.

I’ve since spent the last week listening to her new album, Have One on Me and feel like I need to check back in with Ys. For smart criticism on Have One on Me, I’ll gladly refer you to reviews from Ann Powers, Jonah Weiner, and Mark Richardson. Oscillating almost exclusively between it and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, that’s a lot of time with two smart women’s words. It was a week well spent and has carried over into this one. I’m certain that these two albums are the ones I’ll treasure from this year.

One reason I was able to warm up to Have One on Me is because it’s “accessible,” at least comparatively speaking. Some might interpret this as a taming of Newsom’s sound. Her voice is more controlled. Her arrangements, though spare in a way that recalls The Milk-Eyed Mender, are approachable and gorgeous. They even suggest a pop sensibility that gestures toward a potential connection between her and Carole King and Joni Mitchell’s work in the early 70s. I think all of this does a service to what are ultimately straightforward songs about the complexities of adult relationships. She’s not accessible so much as she is direct.

In addition, I think my attitudes toward pretension have changed since I last considered Newsom. I’ve spent some quality time with Kate Bush and Elizabeth Fraser, post-punk’s grand-mères of affectation. Song cycles about drowning? Lyrics pieced together out of gibberish, abstruse terminology, random words, and antiquated names? Hello.

These considerations have prompted me to stretch back toward Mitchell. They’ve led me to reconsider favorites like Björk, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case. I celebrate contemporary artists like Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, Antony Hegarty, and Julianna Barwick with renewed vigor. I even volley contradictory opinions about Lady Gaga. In fact, after Newsom I should revisit Patti Smith and Tori Amos to see if my opinions of them have changed. I might want to see who this Amanda Palmer person is all about too.

I’m interested in how these artists use pretension for two reasons. For one, I like the effrontery of female musicians whose work seems to bellow, “I’m an artist with a capital A. My music is really important and great. If I need my work to be excessively florid, doggedly conceptual, or sonically challenging, then you can deal. If there was room for prog rock, there’s room for me too. In fact, I am prog rock. No, I have eaten prog rock, along with the book Roan Press published that exalts my genius.”

More to the point, when pretension is used in the service of songs about female experiences, it seems as though there’s potential for the mundane yet particular realities of being female to contain artistry, fantasy, and perhaps even transcendence. In Newsom’s case, as the record is teeming with reflections on motherhood, the pressures of couplehood between creative people, and the struggle for women to maintain autonomy as they mature, the pretensions feel earned.

That said, my threshold for pretension is slanted by my gendered purview. Newsom stretches odes to break-ups, possible abortions, empty rooms, and the West Coast well past the three-minute mark here and I listen. When it’s Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy, I want to stab him so he’ll quit singing or reaching for his thesaurus. “Forty-winking in the belfry,” indeed.

Of course, while I may approve of female pretension, I also have to check it. Here’s where Annabel Mehran’s album cover seems necessary to consider. Newsom is draped across a chaise, suggesting an archetype in portraiture known as the Odalisque. Strewn about her are knickknacks from a decadent bohemian lifestyle — shawls, rugs, lamps, pelts, stuffed animals, antiques, a peacock.

To me, the image composition most clearly brings to mind Henri Rousseau‘s “The Dream.” Erté may also be an influence, as Newsom is fashioned a bit like his “Scandinavian Queen.” The political implications of these artists’ styles, and their respective involvement with Post-Impressionism and Art Deco should not be overlooked, particularly with regard to race. The former was notorious for its problematic, first-world fetishization of its own notions of primitivism. The latter poached quite a bit from Japanese woodcuts, thus perpetuating Orientalism. Indeed, when you juxtapose Newsom’s alabaster complexion against her exotic surroundings, the racial implications of female pretense become troubling. Who is afforded the time to ruminate? Who gets to lie in repose?

Henri Rousseau's "The Dream"; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

With that said, the cover, like the contents of the album, are beautiful, troubling, and revealing. They demand considerable examination and they’re getting it from at least one listener.

About these ads

8 comments

  1. Alex C

    I love this unpacking! Joanna Newsom is such an interesting pop music presence.

    This is totally awful of me to bring up, but she is a celebrity, and we talk about these sorts of things, right? — WTF with her dating Andy Samberg???

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks, friend!

      Yeah, WTF indeed re: Samberg. I didn’t want to bring it up in the entry because I mentioned it in my post about Newsom’s relationship with Rodarte and linked my Flow column about him. I also felt like Powers and Weiner did a good job incorporating it into their discussions of the album, with the former talking about relationship strains between creative types and the latter speculating that Newsom and Samberg share a love for hip hop. And ugh, people always talk about who musicians are dating. Since the album is all about relationships, I thought I’d have the songs stand on their own without comment in the entry. Then we could parse out relationship stuff in the comments section. Her relationships are brought up in the album and thus open to interpretation.

      Plus yeah, gossip!

      So . . . I think Samberg and Newsom are kind of cute. I don’t have a couple crush or anything, but there’s something nice and unassuming about them. They look relaxed in pictures I’ve seen of them (ex: walking around, hanging out at parties, attending red carpet events, checking in at the airport, going to basketball games, etc.). I wonder if they have some kind of NorCal connection (Newsom’s from Nevada City, Samberg went to Berkeley). And they have longevity. They’ve been together since 2007, which is a lifetime when you’re young and talented and can court your share of Natalie Portmans and Jason Schwartzmans.

      The relationship also endears Newsom to me. She’s this “genius presence” and she’s with some goofy boy. I wonder if the attraction is simply that she wants to be with some geek who will make her laugh. That said, I hope Samberg works with her on something. Something tells me that Newsom’s got a funny bone. But maybe she wants to keep him separate from her work, which I respect.

      Samberg seems willing to give her that space too. It might have something to do with knowing he’s dating someone so well-regarded and esteemed. I assume he was a fan first. Thus I wonder how their relationship might shift the power dynamics of a heterosexual relationship between “famous” people.

      Of course, dating Newsom also benefits his image. How better to package yourself as a hipster-friendly comic than to date Pitchfork’s May Queen?

      But I think that Newsom’s relationship with Samberg seems less tortured and more age-appropriate than her SERIOUS AND IMPORTANT relationship with Drag City labelmate/Austin resident/indie’s spurned loverman Bill Callahan. He guested on Ys‘ “Only Skin,” though I’m not sure how long they were together or when they broke up. Perhaps I’m projecting Callahan’s singer-songwriter persona as a lone wolf brooder onto their actual relationship, but I can’t help but speculate that most of the songs on Have One on Me are about him. And much as I love Callahan’s music, his pattern of dating emerging female artists only to make great songs out of their break-ups makes me feel weird (see also Cat Power). He is currently rumored to be dating Lights’ Sophia Knapp, another Drag City artist. Hmmmm.

      • Sarah

        Yes, Newsom’s definitely got a funny bone; I thought she was all innocence and pixie dust before I saw her perform at the fancy-schmancy Disney Concert Hall in LA in late 2007. As her accompaniment exited the stage to much applause, leaving her to perform a solo in a long evening gown, she waited until the clapping died down, then said, “You know, they’re really just a bunch of assholes.”

  2. Pingback: My thoughts on Debi Withers’s “Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory” « Feminist Music Geek
  3. Pingback: Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh « Feminist Music Geek
  4. Pingback: Covered: Christina Aguilera’s “Bionic” « Feminist Music Geek
  5. Pingback: My thoughts on Visions of Joanna Newsom « Feminist Music Geek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s