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It’s probably a hotly contested opinion, especially for those who found the gradual change in her voice a relief after the sharper edges of young Joanna Newsom, but Have One On Me is a far more challenging listen than Ys. Not just in terms of sheer size – though at over double its length, that’s certainly a factor – but in the nature of Newsom’s songwriting, which has forsaken her maze-like approach to storytelling for something a little more earthy, more tangible. Have One On Me addresses the real world in a way that Ys flat-out refused to, and its tale of a relationship’s gradual disintegration is all the more affecting for that directness.
In spite of, or perhaps even because of its labyrinthine twists and freely associative flow, a journey through Ys felt as natural as breathing, or slipping into a dream. Its stream-of-consciousness narrative and intuitive string arrangements effortlessly managed to conjure the pleasurable dissociation of sleep. While spending time with Ys, you knew that when you awoke the world would be the same as before you left it; Have One On Me offers no such comforts. Despite their intricate wordplay, there is a brutal frankness to songs like ‘Does Not Suffice’ and ‘Go Long’ that, say, ‘Sawdust & Diamonds’ – itself a fractured and heartbroken thing – was able to veil behind dense allegory and fantastic characterisation. Her new music has proved to be an open book, but a difficult one to become fully immersed in.
That openness is mirrored in Newsom’s onstage presence this evening: she emerges in a typically airy dress, dry-witted and seemingly unfazed by the comfortably sold-out surrounds. 'This is a very ergonomic seat,' she informs the room as she sits at the piano for the first time, 'If I sound a little… mellower… than usual, you’ll know why'. I’m pretty sure the rustle that follows is the collective sigh of a thousand lovelorn boys. That same newfound directness is also present in the increased role her band plays in shaping her music, all five weaving abstract percussion and string ornamentation around and within its existing framework. The older songs she does play – a swaggering ‘Book Of Right-On’, a frantic rearrangement of ‘Inflammatory Writ’ and the late-set peak of ‘Monkey & Bear’ – now blossom with the same West Coast warmth that made her latest album such a sumptuous listen. The protagonists of ‘Monkey & Bear’ in particular are brought to vivid life as their story slowly builds to a gorgeous peak of cascading scales.
Still, tonight’s performance is all about Have One On Me. Played live with a group of musicians her new songs finally begin to make sense, as their actual presence hammers home their less abstract sentiments in a suitably physical way. Solo opener ‘’81’ has always been the easiest of them to love, and tonight it’s almost unbearably delicate, Newsom’s folksy lilt shifting in and out of phase with glassy harp figures. ‘New Intentions Paving Company’s travellin’ shuffle is another highlight, all six musicians setting up the jaunty clunk-click rhythm of a freight train criss-crossing the US. But surprisingly the songs whose recorded counterparts are less immediate offer the most – the throaty blues of ‘Soft As Chalk’, the celtic melodies of ‘Kingfisher’ and a stellar rendition of ‘Baby Birch’.
Revisiting Have One On Me later in the evening, I’m struck by how immediate its transformation has been, as though a cog gently clicked into place over the two hours she spent onstage. It raises further thoughts about where Newsom has found herself musically: how her latest feels like an album about her home country, rooted in the blues and sixties folk, and steeped in archetypal imagery of open plains and dense woodland; how radical but entirely seamless the shift in her approach has been since Ys; how difficult it is to predict where she’ll arrive next. I don’t doubt that her music will retain its same rare power in any case.
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