Ten years ago this week, Joanna Newsom released a three-disc epic. Its runtime matched The Emperor Strikes Back and its lyric sheet warranted intense study, but those heady qualifiers didn’t stop it from being a legitimate pop phenomenon too, propelling the songwriter on the charts and the stage at The Late Show with David Letterman. An album like Have One on Me requires an attuned ear and certain breadth of experience; a kind and afflicted heart. Those who don’t come to this album equipped with such things will be pushed to grow.
A decade later, I’m still learning to grow alongside it. It’s is the kind of record that people come to and stay with. I’m thinking of something a friend once told me: “Have One On Me is life savingly relatable.”
Joanna Newsom records are always complex things, and they contain multitudes. Her third album is about a lot: female diminishment in the face of male conquest, self-sacrifice, deathly reliance on love and alcohol. It’s about leaving. These are only a few of perhaps hundreds of threads I could’ve pulled at; so devastating is Joanna in her articulacy of life-dying-towards-death, so novelistic in detail—I could say that HOOM is about everything and I might still fall short in my ability to describe it all.
Isn’t this why we come to Joanna in the first place? Her knack for finitizing the infinite? Her ability to turn the rote and rotten universe into something comprehensible and resounding? When listening to HOOM, you not only feel the entire history of your own feelings, you feel the pulse of the universe.
While Ys, Joanna’s previous album, considered our human position against nature, death, time from an aerial perspective—HOOM is fitted right into the ground like a weed. It’s not some great cosmological fable, but a series of neuroses which do and undo themselves. Like time, it simply passes. “Honey, I can pass/Particularly when I start to tip my glass”, she reflects on ‘Ribbon Bows’. I know from my own experience that alcohol is certainly a way to pass the time, in much the same way love is. Both love and wine superficially devour time, and both prove to be the greatest masters of disequilibrium.
“I was thinking of it in terms of a 1920s expatriot version of decadence, that was the model of the kind of hedonism I wanted to write about,” Joanna said of her narrator, who stares absynth-dulled on the album cover. She reminds me most of Sasha Jansen, the protagonist of Jean Rhys’ novel Good Morning, Midnight, who consigns to slowly drink herself to death across Paris’ bar a vins, following an unsuccessful pregnancy. (“Be at peace, baby, and be gone”.)
Joanna’s narrator also throttles at life’s intolerable luxuries. She constantly leaps between tenderness and resentment; love and spite, and uses alcohol and men to self-effacing ends: “Like a Bloody Mary in the mirror, speak my name and I appear” she sings, synthesizing both desires on the album’s opening track. This is after declaring herself “easy” (or, ‘low maintenance’, as the When Harry Met Sally bit goes) but neither her lover nor the listener are convinced. “Easy, I am easy to keep,” she sings, as she awaits the man in their bed to confess his love to her.
Her impatience is at first erotic, but soon turns neurotic: “Who died and made you in charge of who loves who?” she groans like a gorgeous brat. The devastating dramatic irony increases with each relisten. Joanna cross-references across the album’s 18 songs, so that all of her claims, like her love, are reduced to entropy. “You can take my hand in the darkness, darling, like a length of rope,” she sings on “Jackrabbits”; on “Good Intentions Paving Company” that rope’s “gone slack”. On “Does Not Suffice,” the album’s closing track, she packs up her finery, all the evidence of “how easy I was not,” before— spoiler alert—upping and leaving her man in his now boundless bed.
This is the story of one woman as well as womankind. The album’s title, Joanna says “refers to a kind of self-sacrifice that is a theme in a lot of the songs. It’s a very feminine thing…This constant wandering and diminishment of the self through the giving of the self…The way women were, and the way women are in that sense, is fundamental.”
Right down to the songs’ imagery, Joanna retells the breakdown of her relationship, while concurrently retracing the ways in which men have mythologized women and femininity. A horse acts as a double for her shunted heart, and becomes a recurrent metaphor throughout the album. “Poor old dog-sized horse,” she sings on “No Provenance,” a gender-reversed Dick Turpin tale. Later on, that dog-size horse turns to dog, as she finds her pet at “the municipal pound”, mirroring herself back to her: “In the night, I certainly bite and chew” Joanna sings on “Ribbon Bows.” The horse facilitates Joanna’s metaphor most aptly (‘metaphor’ comes from the Greek metaphorien, as in to carry or transport — you know, like a horse) since it’s long been used by men as a fanciful analogy for taming wives. “It is laudable, commendable, a note of vertuous woman, a dutifull wife, when shee submits her-selfe with quietnesse, cheerefully, euen, as a wel-broken horse,” wrote the English Puritan cleric William Whately in 1617.
Joanna also drew HOOM’s narrator with Lacan’s idea of “woman as a symptom of man” in mind. “The photo on the cover of Have One on Me was modeled after typical Orientalist fantasy-figure iconography, like an odalisque or a Venus in Furs—a sort of cartoonish amalgamation of feminine signifiers stylized to illustrate [this idea],” she told Roy Harper in 2011. Orientalist imagery is used liberally by Joanna on the album, and no more notoriously than on “Go Long” (which, nonetheless, also happens to be one of the most effective diss tracks of all time). At times, she uses frankly impermissible language (“Indian-given”) to convey the idea that women are to men what the orient is to the occident; that women are nothing more than a product of male power fantasies — there to be conquered like Eastern land. This, unfortunately, places Joanna within a lineage of white feminists who have conflated colonialism with their own experiences of misogyny and male cruelty.
Listeners who are able to forgive Joanna’s failing (perhaps they have a kinder interpretation?) will find a change of heart on the album’s third disc. If the first two were guided by what Freud called the death-drive, then the third is animated by a life-driver. After sleepwalking through the “lawlessness” of love and drink, she soon feels “a difference”, as time, the natural law, and a maternal desire to be alive flush through her when a friend’s baby—‘Esme’—is born. “Kindness prevails!” she sings.
Where the narrator once possessed a slow-heart, she commands herself and her newly flooded “pro-heart” to “show that you have got gall,” on the album’s penultimate track ‘Kingfisher’, giving her the strength to leave her lover’s bed by the album’s end. The sound of her escape isn’t triumphant, but terrifying and utterly devastating. “Everywhere I tried to love you is yours again and only yours,” she signs off, as strings begin to wince and her piano pounds at the rate of a heart attack.
Throughout our ten years with this album, we’ve come to understand and feel increasingly moved by each song as they correspond with the events in our lives. Five years ago, I played a lover “Easy” when I too felt like a greedy lovelorn brat. I played “Does Not Suffice” when I eventually left. I held myself in my arms and assured myself: “Kindness prevails, kindness prevails” until I was easy once more.
Emma Madden is freelance culture journalist.
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