How many songwriters can write a song about a horse with a “faultlessly etiolated fishbelly face”? Leaving aside the question of how many the world should even want, it’s worth acknowledging the peculiar singularity of Joanna Newsom. Etiolated. With only two albums behind her, Newsom has cast herself as a transfixing character who, in terms of celestial strangeness and ethereality, makes Stevie Nicks seem like a substitute teacher. Her main instrument is the harp, her lyrical themes tend toward the cosmic, and her voice couldn’t be weirder. And now comes Have One On Me, which counts as Newsom’s most beguiling gesture yet.
The first reason for that is a simple matter of length: Split over three CDs, Have One On Me lasts around two hours, with 14 of its 18 songs measuring in at six minutes or more. It’s a long album, and it plays that way. The second reason is more complicated, and it gets to both the strengths and weaknesses of an album that will take time to process in full. Musically, Newsom sounds, relatively speaking, downright conventional on Have One. After the odd, goading arrangements of 2006’s Ys, she seems to have prioritized clarity and space, whether on simple songs for just harp and voice, or more elaborate ones for up to 14 players. What has grown more idiosyncratic is Newsom’s voice, which sounds fuller and wanders into disparate ranges reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Kate Bush.
Lyrically, Newsom pushes into ever more long-lined complexity in expansive songs like “In California” and “Go Long.” But for every dense, labyrinthine story-song to marvel over, the question of excess crops up as a real problem. Many of the tracks fall into similar slow and loping patterns, such that they begin to blur. And then Have One On Me doesn’t hold out any clear organizational structure to cinch it all together. Or at least it hasn’t yet.