Album explores facets of love
The first word that pushed through her lips is not an accurate description of Joanna Newsom’s latest album. The project includes three discs clocking in at over two full hours of music, with many songs over seven minutes long, from a songwriter who eschews the concept of the refrain like the plague.
So let me take you on a voyage. Four years after Newsom’s Ys, we have abandoned that mythical city consumed by the sea, the doves stuffed with sawdust and diamonds, the exploited dancing bear, and have been given an album focused on love. From start to finish Newsom has created an 18-song tribute to love — expectant or unrequited, magical or pragmatic, just on the verge of beginning or already-ended love.
As an aside, I can’t discuss the emotional consternation I have with trying to accept that much of the beauty and raw love in this album may have been somehow provoked by Saturday Night Live digital-short star Andy Samberg. To me this will likely always remain the greatest mystery of this album.
You should open the package and place the first disc in your music player. If you have a digital edition, start with the first six songs. From the opener through much of the first disc (ignoring the slow and folky “No Provenance”) we are seeing a new Newsom, slightly peppy, often straightforward, with catchy quirky lines (I was repeating “like a bump on a bump on a log, baby” for hours). Both “’81” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” are transformed pop songs passed through a filter of Newsom’s voice and harp. The first disc alone, for many artists, would be an accomplished album. Actually, given the standards of today’s recording industry, the disc’s final track — “Baby Birch” — is more than most artists ever even aim for: a nine-and-a-half-minute song that is truly art. And that is just the first disc.
But here you might need a break. Newsom said this was easy, but you need to give it time, take a nap, wait a day. Have a drink on her. Listen to the first CD a few times, learn the rhythm and patterns in those first six stories before pushing on.
The second disc is more of a mystery to me. It pulls you in fast but really expresses itself on “In California,” where Newsom, in the darkness of the night, turns herself into a cuckoo clock. Everyone has a method for dealing with the uncertainty of love; don’t knock hers. Then you just have three more tracks to pretend to understand before you can move on to the third disc.
The final six songs are risky but rewarding. The start is filled with lawlessness (you will know what I mean); “Esme” and “Autumn” are seductive and caring, and “Kingfisher” is Newsom’s storytelling at its peak. But it is the end that makes this whole thing worth it. The final track, “Does Not Suffice,” is a tear-jerking yet subdued story of the now-ex-girlfriend packing up and moving out. Newsom’s mix of lavishly described clothing being packed compared to the starkness of the empty apartment: “The tap of hangers swaying in the closet / Unburdened hooks and empty drawers / And everywhere I tried to love you / Is yours again and only yours.” This accepted loss followed by an agitated musical outro that is really the best possible ending for this journey. One that pushes you right back in.
The difficulty in enduring a three-disc album is lightened partially by Newsom sticking to somewhat simpler lyrics, though her eccentric touch still lingers: the storytelling in “Baby Birch” (“A tarantula’s mounting Countess Lansfeld’s handsome brassiere, while they all cheer”), the title track explorations (“I roam around the tidy grounds of my dappled sanatorium”), or the obviousness of “her faultlessly etiolated fishbelly-face.” But even with these examples (and trust me, there are more) withstanding, this is Newsom’s most inviting effort yet. Each of these songs has a story, has lyrical and musical constructions that won’t be exposed on the first listen. I have no doubt that this album will in time earn its highly regarded and deserved place in Newsom’s growing canon, but to believe that, you may have to give it days of your time. I can only try to make you believe that it is worth it.
I won’t end with some sort of meta-lecture on how it is possible to transcend the cliche that is the concept album, bucking traditional three-and-a-half-minute songs, and producing something that is musically and artistically rewarding. I won’t do that; I will just mention it so you know it is true and that it is your responsibility as an indie connoisseur, a university hipster, or a harpist to listen to this album (all of it), and when you find it grating, to listen to it again for me. And then one more time — the last one is on her.