MODEST COLOSSUS: Even at 18 tracks and more than two hours, Have One on Me isn't decadent, or indulgent, or vain.
People have always thought that Joanna Newsom was indulgent. At first, it was about her voice — the kind of nasal yelp that usually keeps a performer from getting on stage at all. Then, on her second album, it was about her vocabulary and her instrumentation. She loves antiquated language, and she plays the harp. In 2006, she told the Wire that "decadence figures very prominently" in her music. That seemed like a good self-assessment.
But her new album isn't decadent, or indulgent, or vain — even though it's actually a triple album, and more than two hours long. Have One on Me (Drag City) has 18 tracks — which is not outrageous. It's just that she's discovered that the songs she writes best are about seven minutes long. Indulgence is when you take what you do best and do too much of it. Newsom has figured out her idiom, and this is the best music she's ever made.
She frequently calls herself a composer — which is accurate. The impression that many have of her music as baroque doesn't derive just from her cover art, or the blacksmiths and fiefdoms that keep popping up in her lyrics — it's right there in the chords. The title track has a few moments where a melodic line, after wandering sensibly along in a minor key, ends on a major chord, like Hamlet capping off one of his monologues with a little tap dance. It's called a Picardy third, and it's the kind of thing you more often hear at the end of a Bach fugue.
Such devices more or less ran the show on Newsom's second album, Ys. This time, however, she's supplemented them with open chords and gospel-inflected vocal lines. The results feel more confident, even plainspoken. "Mercy me, the night is long/Take my pen, to write you this song" is how "Occident" opens. That's 14 words using a grand total of 15 syllables.
Her voice has opened up as well — it now slides easily between the nasal original and a high, sweet timbre that would make sense in duets with James Taylor. Her singing here is expressive and even occasionally heartbreaking. (Purists might complain that it's less quirky — just remember that personality quirks can hide as much as they reveal.) Unfolding slowly and beautifully over the course of 10 minutes, "Baby Birch" makes a lot of Ys's musical sophistication sound frantic, even a little hysterical.
Newsom believes that the best way to understand something is to describe it slowly and in detail. Halfway through, in "In California," her narrator wonders whether a romance can work. It's not till the closing track that she realizes her hopes were misplaced. She sings, "It does not suffice/For you to say I am a sweet girl/Or to say you hate to see me sad because of you./It does not suffice/To merely lie beside each other/As those who love each other do."
And she walks out the door. Newsom has been described as childlike, but that line is grown-up and clear-eyed. I'd hate to be the guy who has to process being seen in such a ruthless light.
JOANNA NEWSOM + KEVIN BARKER | Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St, Cambridge | March 17 at 7:30 pm | OFFICIALLY SOLD OUT | wworldmusic.org