Review Summary: A great album is hidden in here somewhere.
Well, credit where credit is due - Have One on Me
is an absolutely gigantic leap forward from Ys
; large chunks of Have One on Me
feel like Newsom has had a good look at herself and whipped herself into shape. Gone are the airy-fairy whimsies; she no longer spends all of her time with her head in the clouds. That's surely closely tied to the fact that these songs bear much more of her influences than anything she's done yet, from the obvious (songs like "Easy" are pure peak-period Kate Bush), to the slightly unexpected ones that makes sense (Regina Spektor's vocal quirks appear here almost as regularly as Bjork's did on the last album, and touches of Joni Mitchell in the '70s abound), to the completely leftfield ("You and Me, Bess" takes great chunks of its melody from "The Old Main Drag" by The Pogues). That's definitely not a criticism; she's taking some very good influences and putting them to very good use, and she stays well away from simply stealing. What's more, that open-ness to external influences means grounding herself - which is EXACTLY what she needed to do. Really, it's a miracle this album sounds the way it does, given the circumstances; she must be the only musician in history to dump Steve Albini and somehow become less pretentious.
And yet, there are 3 CDs of this.
What. The. Hell.
I don't understand how any songwriter can identify their major flaw and correct it as acutely as Newsom does here, only to immediately throw it all out of the window by making such a stupid judgement call. There is just no avoiding the reality that Have One on Me
is 60 minutes of music stretched over 125 - there is just no reason for "In California" to be 8 and a half minutes rather than 4, or "Esme" to be 8 rather than 3. Of the longer songs here (let's say all the ones over seven minutes, for argument's sake), around two-thirds of them are utterly bloated for no discernible reason.
It's a shame, because she occasionally reveals herself to be an artist that only truly excels when given space. Look no further than "Autumn" for that - it's stark, arresting, beautiful, vulnerable, and it's unquestionably her finest song yet. The fact that it falls where it does (right in the middle of the third disc) is a Godsend, and is surely the only reason why listening to this album in one sitting is even possible.
Yet, while she generally plays to her strengths, she's guilty of allowing her weaknesses to be exposed too often for this to be a great album. I guess that's what defines Joanna Newsom's career up to this point; of all the virtues a musician could possibly exhibit, she proudly displays all the over-rated ones (invention, idiosyncrasy, independence) and resolutely refuses to show any of the under-rated ones (brevity, subtlety, restraint). It's no wonder she's such a critic's darling, but it's also no mystery why she'll never truly cross over to a mass audience like some of her most obvious contemporaries have. As an aside related to both of those points, it also needs to be said that Newsom isn't anywhere near as good a singer as she thinks she is; far too often she closes her eyes and pretends she's Celine Dion going for the Hollywood vocal, when she'd do better to open them and realise that her fans spend their free time in student unions, not casinos.
So three CDs of what material, and to what end? Hard to say, really; it's clearly her best album, but it's also her most frustrating, because it really drives home her potential and hints at so much greatness without ever truly delivering it. At least it offers up a vision of her next album, one that's genuinely worth all the hype. I'm happy to take that.