Six years after her debut album, Joanna Newsom remains a divisive artist. To her partisans, she’s one of the most original artists of her time, her imaginative lyrics, complex compositions and dexterous harp playing unlike anything else around today, or ever. To her detractors, she’s “Joanna Nuisance,” a freak-folk faker whose shrill voice, fey lyrical conceits, and syrupy music have been known to drive normally tolerant people out of coffee shops. As with fellow Big Ears act Vampire Weekend, there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground between the lovers and the haters.
Newsom’s critically acclaimed 2006 album Ys—five lengthy songs with orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks—was a major work that many listeners are still puzzling over and raving about. It was a tough act to follow, but last month she released a sprawling triple CD, Have One on Me. Reviewers have called it her most accessible work yet, not something you hear often about a 200-minute triple album. But if it’s unwieldy at first blush, there’s no denying there’s also a warmer, more inviting feel to the album as a whole.
Both the oft-cracking, little girl voice that drove some people to distraction on her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and the 10-minute-plus, densely loquacious songs that characterized Ys are largely absent from this 18-song collection. Though some songs still exhibit baroque complexity and a stubborn unwillingness to conform to typical structure, “Good Intentions Paving Company” is almost poppy, “Jackrabbits” and “Occident” come off like early ’70s Joni Mitchell, and “On a Good Day” is a brief, unusually direct love song featuring Newsom alone with her harp.
She’s been all over major media outlets in the weeks between Have One’s release and her current tour, and invariably her dress, quirkiness, and oddball nature are discussed. That’s to be expected; she is eccentric as far as pop artists go. But such talk can overshadow her accomplishments as a musician and songwriter. Much of her work has a depth that can only be properly plumbed after many listens, spread out over time. There’s a lot to take in, and skimming the surface of the music doesn’t serve her or the listener well. You have to give it your time and attention.