Yeah yeah, I totally know this album came out last year, so if you feel like asking why we are still talking about it or you only listen to things that are very current, go and find the Robin Pecknold/Ed Droste collab [no srsly go find it though, it’s good].
But Joanna Newsom’s massive album is essential for anyone who has ever been in a codependent relationship, ruined a relationship via drinking, had their heart broken by a person who wants to be with everyone in the world and/or refuses to provide clarity on the future of your relationship or the likelihood of marriage and/or children, who experiences irrational worry about the stability of the relationship, who persists in a relationship despite knowing that its success is unlikely, who has been manipulative or manipulated, who prefers unavailable people, who is interested in historical figures, and who enjoys the sound of a harp.
So basically everyone. Yet somehow I’ve always felt that no music has ever been “for me” as much as this particular record; I suspect everyone who loves it feels the same, so this analysis of the record’s narrative is “for us.”
There are three discs, so we’ll do it in three parts, okay?
This is an excellent track with which to begin something of a difficult record. Her soft singing, the breezy sigh of violins and her images of fog, lit rivers attended by frogs, and words like “rest and remain”. I am “easy to keep”; not hard to make happy, claims the female narrator; I just want to take care of you, she says — “my arms want to carry, my heart wants to hold.” And “Honey, you please me even in your sleep” is one of the most adoring lyrics on the record.
But it’s in fact fact quite an aggressive song. “Who asked you if you want to be loved by me?” She demands; she pleads for a break; “how long’s it going to take,” she wants to know. She notes the “frog going courting until the day he croaks” like it’s a threat, subtly. She talks of plucking all the petals in a field of flowers “til only I may love you”, an almost alarming level of determination.
The song establishes the entire album’s narrative as hinging upon the kind of woman who is capable of boundless adoration, but is herself deprived. Is she passive-aggressive and manipulative, guilting an unreciprocating love object into remaining beside her? Or is she bursting with love to give and simply choosing an emotionally unavailable partner, one who won’t “carry the weight of two”?
The song ends with the woman comparing herself to a Bloody Mary in the mirror, like the horror story children used to dare one another to test – “speak my name and I appear,” she sings. But Bloody Mary is a vicious apparition, something to fear – and noted in history for burning anyone who rejected her faith. The woman who is singing “Easy” is not easy at all, but rather a viciously hungry creature prisoned inside a Trojan horse of caregiving.
Have One On Me
Bloody Mary is also a cocktail – quite my favorite morning-after one, in fact – and the album’s title track has the bizarre, sprawling ecstasy and pathos of an alcoholic relationship. It also carries the theme of old royalty along with it, this time citing the relationship between King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Louis) and Lola Montez, a dancing girl who made a career of being a courtesan to powerful men until the King made her a countess.
As the Countess Lansfeld (sung of with a “handsome brassiere” here) , Lola Montez exercised considerable power behind the throne, having used the King’s sexual interest in her to secure some latitude over him. Perhaps Lola Montez was the sort of woman who’d sing a song like “Easy” – a courtesan who aims to please, but with designs always on what she wants from the men she serves.
But that scenario, and her behavior in it, ultimately played a key role in Ludwig I having to give up his throne – “fell from grace while Lola fled to save face and her career.” “Heaven has no words for the way you and your friends have treated poor Louis,” Joanna sings, but there is also sympathy for “poor Lola.”
In the story, Lola “knew that no other could ever love [her] as [he] loved,” but also cries “help me, I’m leaving,” in a summoning of that precise sort of relationship: Where two who are quite bad for each other love each other very much – spider-and-fly imagery are used continually, and it’s never clear which party is predator and which is prey. And right after she declares she’s leaving, she notes “you made me fast and expendable” and drinks simultaneously to “your excellent health and your cruelty.”
It’s positively schizophrenic – “knocking heads”, as she sings, the manic attempts to process codependency littered all throughout with references to drinking. And from the song’s title straight on through, she encourages and pleads for the man to drink with her. One very good way to get a person to stay the night with you is to encourage them to drink: “Have one on me,” she sings again and again, her voice reaching delicate peaks of urgency each time.
So is this not-so-easy female, this spiderlike Lola Montez, this horrific Bloody Mary of a woman, truly terrible? The brief and delicate ‘81’ is a song that invites the listener to find out. Literally, an invitation to a “garden of Eden” – the original seat of human innocence. It’s also, of course, the birthplace of original sin, for which woman-as-temptress is traditionally blamed.
The narrator in the garden has recognized the mistakes she’s made – “shocked at the state of things” in the little plot she’s chosen for herself, but she is here to “start again”, conceiving of a “garden party” she would fund as if in apology or “farewell to loves that I have known.”
She’s not just forgiving herself, she’s forgiving others, in a nuanced recognition that it takes two to tangle a relationship – the “muddiest waters” she notes, those situations where it’s hard to tell which party was “right” and which “wrong”. “I believe in innocence,” she asserts, not just her own but that of “everyone”.
The title is interesting. Joanna Newsom was born in 1982, not 1981, but as her birthday is in January, 1981 would have been the year she was conceived, speaking of returning to origin.
Good Intentions Paving Company
So where does man go when exiled from Eden? The title of this song subtly references Hell, and the way the proverb dictates many often get there. After the self-forgiveness of ’81, the narrator and her partner revisit the course of love. Between Heaven and Hell, there’s the firmness of earth, and the song seems to suggest a middle ground – perhaps the insidious narrator of ‘Easy’ or the manipulative lover of ‘Have One On Me’ were just a little bit hard on themselves. She never meant to hurt anyone, she just loved too much, maybe.
“It’s my heart, not me, who cannot drive,” she admits, handing over the wheel to a lover who apparently knew her better than she knew herself. “I regret, I regret,” she sings of the ways she’s miscommunicated. But it’s a whimsical tone – the narrator is here glad because she’s already been forgiven, and because she’s resolved to work hard to move forward. It’s the joy of a relationship whose sickness has been addressed and repaired. “For the time being all is well,” she sings.
And yet the title of the song – good intentions pave the road to hell – overhangs throughout, and there are a lot of “wells” and “buts” and “what-ifs” ahead on the idyllic road. “This is blindness beyond all conceiving,” she concedes, a complex statement as part of a lyric that leaves a past behind with the future unknown.
“There is hesitation and it always remains” in this relationship; the road will be hard, there will be a “fall” (as part of “after the fall”, reference to Eden again). The finest part of the song is the closing lyric, when the narrator has exhausted herself of the fear and uncertainty of the future and simply asks to be held. It’s only logical that the song that deals with the most grounded phase in a relationship sounds the most cheerful, celebratory traveling music.
“Allelu, allelu,” begins the reverent song, a gentle carriage of the ongoing Biblical references the album uses to suggest positive times of peace, happiness and origin (versus the themes of royalty and history that often suggest more difficult or negative times). The narrator here has forgotten her difficult beginnings in coming to love this person, and now feels “safe and warm”, capable of the sort of miracles that can spin straw into gold.
But then she confides, very softly, fear of “the Big Return” – might the old challenges ever come back to threaten the couple? Can they remember those conversations, with no record of them by which to go? But the partner allays her fears, hiding from her the sight of Rome as its lights “flickered and died”, and showing her that the only bête-noire to assault the city of their love is a “poor old dirty little dog-sized horse.”
What’s important about this song is that the anxiety appears without origin; literally, “no provenance.” And so she concedes her authority to this partner who’s protected her – just like in “Good Intentions Paving Company”, she is happy to continue to be held.
Much speculation has concerned themes that appear to regard child loss by miscarriage or abortion in Newsom’s work. Baby Birch is clearly a song about a lost baby – but it seems most likely that it’s a song that pertains to a decision not to have one, whether by election or by termination. The song’s gruesome ending, however, in which the “baby” is portrayed as a rabbit that the narrator caught, held down and skinned, leaving it “upended, unspooling, unsung and blue”, suggests a measure of violence, however, and a measure of agency: “I thought it’d be harder to do,” she sings. And the song’s baby is something of which “there is the knowledge”, not theory.
But the woman in the story is still preoccupied by the desire to be a parent; this song is still about her relationship and what the future will bring – “I wish we could take every path,” she sings with sweet rue. The idea of raising a child together will resurface in the following song, as will the consequences of the subtly resentful lyric “I have never known the plan”.
Although it begins with the heartbreaking “I will never know you,” Baby Birch is less about losing one child than it is about wanting the opportunity, at least, even if not now. “I hated to close the door on you,” she reflects, in dialogue with the unexplored opportunity. She wonders about what hair and eye color the child will have – perhaps even revealing that she wonders about who will ultimately parent her child with her, as if it may not be whom she’s with.
And despite the fact the narrator skinned the rabbit, she describes it as fleeing her, followed by her declaration of “wherever you go, little runaway bunny, I will find you” – suggesting that the opportunity to be a parent is not something she’s so willingly ready to surrender.