Lists, Reviews

10 Essential Tracks To Knowing (And Loving) Joanna Newsom

 Joanna Newsom is just as predictable as any avant-garde, indie harpist, but 2014 is set to…


Joanna Newsom is just as predictable as any avant-garde, indie harpist, but 2014 is set to be an important year for her with a new album being only the tip of the iceberg. She’s gotten the trivialities of an unexpected pairing to comedic wonder-boy and now-husband, Andy Samberg, out of the way. And she’s even earned her first starring role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice set for release this later year, and been accused of things as incendiary as making the harp ‘hip’. Classical training and three master-class albums under her belt have had her lauded as one of the greatest songwriters and storytellers of modern times. She’s come a long way from cameos in MGMT video’s, yet given her idiosyncrasies – including her inimitable voice and tendency towards the lofty and apologal – she remains a thoroughly divisive character: she manages to breed rabid devotees and fierce critics, alike. Here are some songs and reasons why:

 10. Peach, Plum, Pear 

Memorable line: You were knocking me down/ With the palm of your eye

‘Peach, Plum, Pear’ could be argued to be the quintessential Joanna Newsom song. All frantic, whimsical harp-strumming that’s accented by a harpsichord that never sounds out of place. It’s a standout of her debut album, The Milk Eyed Mender and remains a concert mainstay for its technical complexity. Joanna pores passion into the delivery of the storybook-like lyrics and it shows as the song gallops towards a gorgeous harp solo. You’d expect her uncertain or diffident, but she’s nothing but unyielding in her approach.


9. You And Me Bess

Memorable line: “I hope Mother Nature has not overheard! (Though, she doles out  hurt like a puking bird.)”

The lyrical craft here is gorgeous and reminiscent of the brilliant imagery that was weaved within and throughout the gargantuan Ys, Joanna’s sophomore LP.  She delivers a fantastic performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show with a wonderful melding of harmonies with rarely sought after backing vocalists. Newsom is at her best when she actively invites others into the stories she moulds around her. Her subtle magic seeps into themes of powerlessness, escape and sacrifice, making them take on different colours upon each listen. 


8. Cosmia

Memorable line: “Then the moonlight caught your eye/ and you rose through the air/well, if you’ve seen true light, then this is my prayer:/will you call me when you get there?”

Easy and eloquent as she is in song, it’s clear Joanna Newsom has a laborious thought-process to her songwriting. She actively obsesses over syntactic choices, imagery and movement in the lyrics that translate to such a smooth and effortless end product. Hear her being interviewed and it’s hard to doubt that she has two feet firmly set on the ground. ‘Cosmia’ sweeps one into her grieving for a lost friend and spits you back out feeling edified about life and love, but without any false consolations. She describes the sound as her feeling “crumpled over with being alive.” And isn’t that the crux of it all?


7. Have One On Me

Memorable line: “Meanwhile, I will raise my own glass to how you made me fast and expendable. And I will drink to your excellent health, and your cruelty.”

Titular track of her 3rd album and alight with pathos, Newsom flaunts a familiar ability to create an allegorical landscape for her music to dwell within. Here, it’s sprawling retelling of the life of Lola Montez, a courtesan turned countess to Kind Ludwig II of Bavaria. The focus is the sometimes-predator, sometimes-prey complexity of the female heroin as is the case in most of her songs. It’s this feminist approach to songwriting that’s keeping her as relevant as contemporaries like St. Vincent and Fiona Apple. In her live rendition, Newsom is at the peak of her enthralling, bard-like talent. Her warbling is all at once urgent and pleading, carving a separate and distinct poignancy into closing lines that are seemingly repetitive.


6. Baby Birch

Memorable line: “I wish we could take every path. I could spend a hundred years adoring you. Yes, I wish we could take every path, because I hated to close the door on you”

Baby Birch is just one of the songs that those drawing Joanna Newsom comparisons to Joni Mitchell would be able to pull out as cold, hard proof. The vivid retelling of raw and personal events – belied by a conversational delivery – is one of the rare gifts with which both were blessed. The identity of the ‘baby’ this song addresses is widely mused upon; for some it’s about abortion and for others it’s about the death of opportunity itself. For whichever reason, Joanna is deeply wracked with emotion because of it and it translates into a momentous performance to behold as she attacks the harp strings that have served her so well. 


5. Bridges And Balloons

Memorable line: We sailed away on a winter’s day/ With fate as malleable as clay/ But ships are fallible, I say/ And the nautical, like all things, fades 

Bridges and Balloons.

This is perhaps what earned Newsom the difficult-to-shake image as some sort of musical pixie squirrelling away in her own world of golden harp music. It turns out to be something she’s deeply aware of and that she parodied to great success on her appearance on Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein’s (Sleater Kinney and Wild Flag) satirical comedy show Portlandia. At any rate, Joanna is unapologetic as her voice reaches its highest and most whimsical notes as she awes at the world around her; spinning witticisms and erudite minds alike.


4. Good Intentions Paving Company

Memorable line: “How I said to you, ‘Honey, just open your heart’, when I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar”

It could be fairly argued that ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ might’ve been a last ditch attempt to win over any naysayers. It’s an earthy and sincere tune that plays to Joanna Newsom’s strengths as the song journeys along the course of love.  Somehow she manages to highlight both the inexhaustible wonders of a future of love and helplessness that she likens to “a fist-fight with a fog”. Her voice is fittingly open and even she cannot but help bob her along to the accompanying piano and the jubilant chorus-line.  This one’s certainly a treat – and you’d get bonus points for managing a straight-face whilst reading comments about Newsom’s various expressions throughout.


3. Swansea 

Memorable line: “Borne by wind, we southward blow. And yonder, wild and blue. The wild blue yonder looms. Till we are wracked with rheum.”

Swansea shows off Newsom’s ability to weave her own sad tales as skillfully as Sybille Baier and Vashti Bunyan before her. Rich with imagery and trudging along with an immutable sadness, Newsom’s rich vocabulary tells more of vibrant thought process rather than possession of a hefty thesaurus. Once that obstacle is overcome, the song feels more like a dialogue: Newsom’s palm mutes and hums manage to gather disparate thoughts and feelings into familiar shapes and forms.  This all adds to a magnificent live delivery that can draw a listener into the rhythm like a gentle tide.


2. Emily

Memorable line: “I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever, in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror”

Deeply rooted in her personal life and experiences, ‘Emily’, is an ode to her astrophysicist sister. She caws and croons her way through a sparse harp arrangement before a Van Dyke Parks (having previously worked Grizzly Bear and Rufus Wainwright) led orchestral arrangement creates effortless and flowing layers within the song. The imagery she uses on this song is breathtaking and unpredictable and not limited to a tangent on the precise and vast differences between a meteor, meteorite and a meteoroid. In her characteristic style, it illuminates one element of her mindset whilst throwing large parts into greater shade. Combined with backing vocals from the eponymous sister, Emily, it serves as one of Newsom’s most personal pieces.


1. Does Not Suffice

Memorable line: “It does not suffice to merely lie beside each other. As those who love each other do”

To the Newsom purist, it may feel like sacrilege seeing a harp-less tune in the top slot, but we’d all do well to remember that the piano and violin preceded Joanna Newsom’s matchless command of that golden pedal harp. For all of her quirks, it’s easy to see Newsom as an artist as far removed from reality as the next harpist who spent three days in circle of stones and staring at a river when she was eighteen. It’s quite an ask to not call her at antiquated speech and fable-like storytelling Quixotic at the best of times and pretentious at the worst. But the craft of ‘Does Not Suffice’ is that Newsom is rarely so agonizing, bare and accessible as she is here; a track that’s thought to have been written after ending her relationship with artist and sometimes-collaborator, Bill Callahan. 

It’s the closing track on Have One On Me and it draws its strength from its ostensible simplicity: a detailed inventory of the precious things she packs as she is forced to give up on her love. Yet, each detailed description is so chocked full of emotion that the edge that the piano melody tumbles off towards the end of the track feels more like an escape than an implosion – her delicate soprano echoing into nothingness. It’s her talent for capturing these simple emotions, pains and pleasures, really – beautifully rendered and deftly delivered, of course – that warrant the tender visit to Joanna Newsom’s discography time and time again.

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