As demanding albums go, Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me is pretty smooth going. Songs amble along leisurely, heavy on warm, plucked strings, stately piano, and bright horns, as Newsom sings in a voice that's both resolute and vaporous: an amplified sigh. Some agitations and eruptions breach the surface here and there, but mostly the pond just shimmers. And yet the album is demanding because it wants us to do something that we've grown largely unaccustomed to doing in the digital-music era: namely, to stop what we're doing—close all the tabs in our browsers—and give it our undivided attention.
Have One on Me, released last week, mounts a three-disc, 18-song protest against distraction, against rushing, against gulping. Newsom, an audacious 27-year-old songwriter from northern California, tells complicated stories that don't invite parsing so much as necessitate it, and the album forms a panorama so sprawling that the mind's eye struggles to survey it in full. Here she is in one song, stealing a horse and hanging for the crime; here she is in another, pondering the life of Lola Montez, 19th-century bohemian scenester and mistress of the Bavarian King Ludwig I; here she is fallen in with ash-masked volcano worshippers.
The album—a patchwork of American and Celtic folk, medieval music, gospel, classical, country, and piano-pop—lasts two hours and four minutes. That's two minutes more than Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 12 more than Wu-Tang Forever, and 20 less than Sandinista! But it takes at least three plays to begin to feel you've really heard it. One listen is necessary to collect first impressions and sketch a rough road map; a second to read along with the precisely transcribed paragraphs, parentheticals, puns, and mellifluous A.P. English stumpers—etiolated, palanquin, gormless—that take up a full 25 pages of liner notes; and a third listen to put down the liner notes and let the words settle back into partnership with Newsom's music and phrasing, which emphasize lines that may have seemed throwaway on the page while underselling other, would-be zingers.
This takes some effort, but mostly it just takes time. Have One on Me is worth the cost, though, and worth the actual price tag retailers put on it, too, because it is exactly what it purports to be: a major work, moving, mystifying, transporting. You emerge from it with your bearings knocked askew.
Newsom's inclinations weren't always so epic. She made her debut in 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender, a collection of mostly three- and four-minute songs. These consisted of little more than Newsom's pedal harp, from which she picked slender, pretty melodies, and her supple squeak of a voice, which skated up and down syllable-stuffed couplets and quatrains. To most listeners, Newsom's singing on Milk-Eyed Mender and its 2006 follow-up, Ys, is some mixture of lure and repellant: hypnotic and haunting as it cuts odd, upper-register figures, but sometimes overly evocative of Ralph Wiggum stealing the school musical. Like many of pop's most distinctive voices, hers is both startlingly unique and verging on self-parody.
Named for a mythical sunken city, Ys was a prouder, purpler record than Newsom's debut. It replaced that album's spare song-craft with a busier, fuller-bodied bouquet—swerving strings, chirruping woodwinds, banjos, accordion—arranged by Van Dyke Parks, the composer best known for his work with Brian Wilson on the "lost" Beach Boys album Smile. At the microphone, Newsom leaned harder on the affect—her singing on Ys is thick with delicate tremolo, balletic hiccups, and assorted vocal filigree, and her lyrics tend toward medieval-pastoral pastiche. "What is now known by the sorrel and the roan?" she wonders at one point, "By the chestnut, and the bay, and the gelding gray?" She has said these songs allegorize intensely personal moments in her life. The allegory is densely thicketed enough to ensure that her secrets remain well-protected. Indeed, Newsom uses up so much breath in these songs that sometimes she risks sucking all the air from them—her cascading verbiage, filling nearly every inch, can obscure the emotional content she wants it to heighten.
It feels odd to praise a three-disc album for its moderation, but Have One on Me deserves it. Newsom has drawn down her whimsy offensive so that her singing retains its idiosyncrasy with none of the mannered ululations and chafing preciousness. Her voice sounds smokier here and is softened throughout with reverb, so that she sounds like a person in a place, not a pixie in our ears. Ralph Wiggum hardly makes an appearance, and in his stead, Newsom evokes singers with a talent for mingling the ethereal and the earthbound: There are flashes during "In California" of Joni Mitchell (in the husky, mournful phrasing) and Kate Bush (in the luxuriously whooping crescendo).
Several songs are as elaborately conceived as those on Ys—the instrumentation includes oboe, harpsichord, Bulgarian tambura, kaval, and rebec—but the mood has loosened up to include moments of jauntiness ("Good Intentions Paving Company"), gentle sauntering ("You and Me, Bess"), and animated clamor ("Soft as Chalk").
Other songs are skeletal. "Go Long" begins as a smoldering, two-note dirge that could fit on an early Cat Power record, and it dissolves into a delicate flurry of syncopated plinks. The stammering piano melody in "Occident" spends four minutes rousing itself, manages a minute-long, midtempo strut, then shrugs off back to bed. The most stunning of the quiet songs is "Baby Birch," a nine-and-a-half-minute ache that closes the first disc and whose shivering melancholy hangs over the rest of the album.
The song is about the crushing weight of an absence. Built around acoustic guitar and harp, it devotes almost as much space to the resonating aftereffects of notes as the notes themselves. Newsom's lyrics seem to concern some departed child—a baby given up for adoption, perhaps, or maybe an aborted pregnancy. (Infants and motherhood are recurring motifs throughout the album.) In a cadence not far removed from "Amazing Grace," and in a ghostly half-twang that suggests time spent in the low-lit company of Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton records, Newsom sings about a "baby" she "closed the door on" and "will never know." The song builds gradually to a pained climax and a grisly image, which Newsom describes in clipped, direct language: