Joanna Newsom

"Have One on Me" (Drag City) -- 4.5 STARS


“It does not suffice for you to say I am a sweet girl,” croons Joanna Newsom on the final song of “Have One on Me.” Nor does it suffice, after listening to the new album, her third, to marginalize the gifted harpist, pianist, and singer-songwriter any longer.

For listeners not completely enamored of her unique sound, Newsom has often been identified solely by only her distinct voice and harp playing, rather than by the remarkable talent she’s always commanded as a songwriter. But “Have One on Me” unveils an adventurous, sophisticated, and newly approachable Newsom. Her talent has culminated in this three-disc, two hour masterpiece, revealing that she has both branched out musically and refined her craft. “Have One on Me” is arguably the most accessible of Newsom’s albums, though it is neither generic nor pandering to the mainstream, qualities the term “accessible” often intends to euphemize. Rather, “Have One on Me” proves Joanna Newsom capable of a stunning expanse of styles and sounds.

Much of “Have One on Me” is a testament to Newsom’s prodigious, and perhaps unexpected, ability to incorporate outside influences into her own style. “Occident,” the twelfth track, evokes Regina Spektor. Weighty piano chords, mirrored by the full-bodied quality of Newsom’s vocals, recall Spektor’s characteristically poignant, minimalistic ballads. Despite the mark of external influence, however, “Occident” ultimately bears Newsom’s personal stamp. Newsom’s characteristically inscrutable lyrics shine (“Smoke-heart, curb your taste / Smoke me out of my hiding place”) and her voice maintains its youthfullness and its typical quality.

“Baby Birch,” the sixth track, also demonstrates Newsom’s ability to successfully adapt and transform previously-unexplored styles. Newsom’s voice takes on only the slightest, airy twang so that the song recalls the style of Neko Case. But the track, which approaches ten minutes in length, goes beyond a mere regurgitation of alternative country. Haphazard slips of electric guitar and banjo accent a languid harp­—which, in typical Newsom style, she fits perfectly into this country song—and as the song proceeds, dramatic harp and guitar cadences alternately build up and descend. Haunting vocal harmonies and forceful drum beats later give way to an Asian-inspired melody, rendering the song difficult to classify by conventional standards, yet still easy to listen to.

“Have One on Me” also boasts symphonic arrangements, an unfamiliar element in Newsom’s repertoire. On track nine, “In California,” theatrical strings swell to a climax topped off by the trilling of flutes and orchestral percussion. Without overpowering, the arrangements effectively enhance the harp playing which makes up the song’s foundation, and along with Newsom’s flawless vocals, they add a new and rich sound to her vast inventory.


Newsom’s vocals have never sounded more polished than on “Have One on Me.” Her singing has evolved remarkably from the piercing yowls of her previous works. While her distinctive vocal style may have held an endearing quality for devoted fans, it could be quite grating for the unintiated. On this album, however, a much clearer, controlled soprano imbues all 18 tracks with an angelic beauty. On the third track, “‘81,” as Newsom utters such lyrics as “Meet me in the Garden of Eden / …We are going to have a garden party” and “I believe in innocence, little darling,” her dulcet vocals wholly embody the purity of which she sings. Newsom demonstrates this new and impressive command of her voice throughout the album.

With the release of “Have One on Me,” Joanna Newsom’s talent comes fully to the forefront. The album successfully treads one of the finest lines many artists face and few accomplish: how to reach out to more listeners without caving to mainstream demand. Newsom has made herself more accessible while simultaneously refining her own personal style. “Have One on Me” is a superb release, and merits Newsom nothing but the highest praise.