Joanna Newsom Would Like Your Undivided Attention
Stop what you're doing and listen, closely, to Have One on Me.
I saw a rabbit,
As slick as a knife,
And as pale as a candlestick,
And I had thought it'd be harder to do,
But I caught her, and skinned her quick:
held her there,
Kicking and mewling,
Upended, unspooling, unsung and blue;
Told her "wherever you go,
Little runaway bunny,
I will find you."
Is this an abortion refigured as an animal sacrifice? Maybe not. But the way the passage fuses an act of violence with words of motherly comfort suggests, at the least, one dark nursery rhyme. (A mother goose, it happens, appears in the preceding verse, defending her eggs.)
You suspect that one of the things Newsom enjoys doing with her boyfriend, the comedian Andy Samberg, is listening to hip-hop. In order to find lyricists as dexterous, dense, and logorrhea-prone as Newsom, after all, we need to look to rappers, who inspire much of Samberg's comedy. Scanning this album's thick libretto, you wonder if Newsom is planning to add a teleprompter to her live setup when she tours the record.
As word-drunk as Newsom is, though, she's ambivalent about language. On "Inflammatory Writ," from Milk-Eyed Mender, she squints skeptically at the alchemical trick of transforming dead words on a page into emotional responses in a listener. Later, on "This Side of the Blue," she traces the fault line between words and what they are meant to describe: "And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers, and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words! While across the sky sheet the impossible birds, in a steady, illiterate movement homewards," she sings.
On Have One on Me, this preoccupation reappears, with a special focus on names. "Like a Bloody Mary, seen in a mirror: Speak my name and I appear," Newsom tells us on the opening "Easy." In "On a Good Day," she sings, "I saw a life, and I called it mine, I saw it drawn so sweet and fine, and I had begun to fill in all the lines, right down to what we'd name her." On "Good Intentions Paving Company," she pleas for a lover to "pull over, and hold me, till I can't remember my own name." For Newsom, naming is both a creative process that calls things into existence, and a deforming, imprecise force she wishes she could escape.
She can't, of course, so she keeps on singing, laying in to big themes—maternity, self-destruction, love's wane—with a barrage of syllables, questions, and second-guessing asides that she italicizes in the liner notes. Sometimes the world interrupts these monologues, but it doesn't always say what she wants to hear. On "Easy" she stops to ponder the lonely mating call of a "frog going courting till the day he croaks." On "In California," the inscrutable nighttime squawking of a cuckoo clock infuriates her, and provokes the album's stormiest moment.
Have One on Me is difficult to listen to, because it has needs. It wants to fill us with its ruminations. It ends with "Does Not Suffice," in which Newsom acknowledges the imposition she can make on her audiences—well, sort of. In this case the audience in question is a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. She has half-apologized for not being "easy," packed up her things, and left bare hangers knocking against one another in the closet. The last words on her lips are a curse masquerading as a goodbye: "Everywhere I tried to love you is yours again, and only yours." When the last note fades, you may find yourself re-starting the album straight away, to live again in its spell, to keep Newsom with you in the room.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.