WHILE STARING DOWN the deep canyons carved by the wily Yuba River's path through Nevada County, California, cluttered with the round, pregnant bellies of sun-bleached boulders and rushing with eager currents, one may find oneself pleasantly underwhelmed by the many qualms of mankind. Suddenly, in the visual throes of those oddly cerulean waters, it's no longer worth considering all of the wild territories lost to gravelly tract housing or the exponential growth of cacophonous advertisements on television. Those things seem distant and silly when drowned out by the river and its rushing, as it waxes and wanes with the seasons, and as it rolls over the smooth, gold-flecked rocks that line the bottom, as it has all along.
For those who pay attention, it is clear that the mystique of Nevada City, an old gold mining town northeast of Sacramento's smokestacks and highly susceptible to romanticizing, has had a fervent impact on Joanna Newsom and her body of music (along with the many musical folks from whence they came). In almost every interview with the 28-year-old harpist/pianist, she mentions the importance of her home and her inability to consider living anywhere else.
And you can hear it all throughout the sprawling landscapes of her songs, spattered with patches of foxtail grass and bright orange poppies, set beneath the sparse shade of the ponderosa pines; you can hear traces of lawlessness of a wild West through the frenetic escalations of her voice and the way she sits perched beneath that skulking monster of a pedal harp, seemingly unaffected by its size, scouring bass notes with her left hand and plucking at the taut upper notes with her right.
And you can get swept away in it all; hours pass unnoticed, worries dissolve. Or your eardrums can cower with every shriek and you can feel your limbs flailing helplessly in the rapids of her endless, aimless narratives; perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Newsom's music is just how great the divide is between fans and foes.
Newsom's style and talent have been a topic of intrigue since she was clumsily ushered in under the blanket "freak folk" movement of the early aughts, spearheaded by a power crystal-encrusted Devendra Banhart. The Milk-Eyed Mender, 2004, drew ample attention to her songwriting prowess and overall uniqueness, while 2006's bogged-down LP Ys (named for a mythical city on the coast of Brittany that was swallowed up in the drink) shot her up into a barely oxygenated atmosphere of winding folk songs and orchestral arrangements (care of Van Dyke Parks).
And from there, it seemed there was no logical place to go but back down. Marking the descent is Have One on Me, delivered to the world in February of 2010 in its triple-disc massiveness and featuring instrumental accompaniment from Portlanders guitarist Ryan Francesconi and drummer Neal Morgan. Newsom's third studio release is commonly heralded as her most tangible project to date, though she has her own opinions: "'Tangible' is a fine word to describe the record. But, for me, the mood is something more like 'tactile,' or maybe 'corporeal.' The thematic content hasn't changed so drastically between this album and the last, but the tone of narration is different, more earthbound; the vantage point has shifted downward," explains Newsom.
And that's certainly the truth; where Ys could easily spew a bizarre, nine-minute conversation between two creatures with a sound similar to Sergei Prokofiev's eerie musical symphony Peter and the Wolf and overarching themes to boot (see: "Monkey and Bear"), Have One on Me is welded together with more primitive tools. For instance, in "Good Intentions Paving Company," a rollicking piano tune and a clear standout track, Newsom's voice peers out over a crashing cymbal to extend a simple yet strikingly approachable metaphor for love: "How I said to you, 'Honey/just open your heart'/when I've got trouble even opening a honey jar." It's this sort of affirmative head nod of deftness, one associated with the honing of a craft, that is delightfully woven through the fibers of Have One on Me.
However, while a clear shift has been made, according to Newsom she is about as conscious and in control of her songwriting as one can be when panning for gold: "I seldom have insight into my writing process until months after an album is finished. At some point, given enough distance from all that work, I might start to make little observations about the songs, or draw certain thematic connections, but while I'm actually engaged in writing them, I mostly feel like I'm being driven herky-jerky across town with a potato sack over my head." If nothing else, we know exactly which town she's referring to.