An Overly-Intense Track By Track Analysis Of The Third CD Of Joanna Newsom’s ‘Have One On Me'

Mar. 14, 2011
Leigh Alexander is news director of industry trade site Gamasutra, and author of the Sexy Videogameland weblog. Her ...
This is a continuation of the analysis of Joanna Newsom’s three-part record; see introduction and part one here, part two here.

Soft as Chalk

When we last left our narrator, she’d been hit with the ruthless revelation that she loved a commitment-averse and possibly even unfaithful sort of man, and that all her caring – sometimes dependent and desperate, other times mutual and steadfast – wasn’t enough to change him. It can be quite disconcerting to compare someone as you know them at the end of a relationship to the person you thought you knew at the beginning. This man who used to make excuses just so she’d let him stay over ultimately turned into someone who took her for granted. How could someone with whom she once sat up all night talking “til morning came, pale as a pearl” have rendered her like this, pacing aimless and struggling to process the relationship’s course until she feels paranoid, “calling out, ‘who is there?’” and wondering whether he ever loved her at all. “Godawful lawlessness,” she declares bitterly, accusitorily; it makes no sense.

Esme

“I do not know if you know just what you have done,” she tells the subject of this song – clearly a “baby, so newly-born.” It’s highly unlikely that it refers to the narrator’s own child, but if Newsom does indeed have a baby of her own, you can feel free to educate me. It seems she’s been playing a variation of this song as far back as 2008, if that helps for context. Based on the song’s imagery, though – “all of us in our tents” gathered around a newborn, taking photographs and marveling at the impact of a child on the lives of a community – and on the themes of grievance regarding childbirth earlier in the record, it seems much more likely that ‘Esme’ is the child of friend (she recalls “watching you and your mama row in”). “I laid in the dark thinking about all our friends and our changes,” she sings. That someone she knows has become a parent has new impact in the context of her failed relationship and on the child she presumably wanted to have herself and did not. Especially as regards the latter, the lyric “each phantom limb lost has got an angel” holds weight, as if the birth of Esme allows her, at least in some respects, an avatar of the possibility of her own motherhood, or even perhaps the spirit of the child she lost. Ultimately, though, she takes joy from Esme’s birth; the new life and the happiness of another family brings her joy and hope, and in return, “I have prepared this small song for you.”

Autumn

A song named for the season where everything dies is necessarily mournful; in its fall-tinged, sad memory you see the portrait of an individual in static depression, isolated and lonesome – “friendly voices dead and gone.” Generally in the sorts of relationships that this record describes – the woman craved permanence and domesticity, the man had the insatiable appetite for more (as described in ‘Go Long’) – a breakup or separation will never be viewed equally by both sides. What’s saddest about this song is although he’s chosen, implicitly or otherwise, to keep her at a distance in order to continue sowing his wild oats, she’s still waiting for him, or can’t stop loving him – “I have got no control over my heart, over my mind,” she admits. That’s not to say she’s content to be in such a state: “Would I could tie your lying tongue,” she wishes quietly – what he thinks is best for the couple is still implausible to her. “Who says that leaving keeps you young?” She reflects resentfully. While he’s out enjoying a facsimile of youth that he’s chosen over stability, she’s not having the same fun: “I laugh when you speak of my pleasure-seeking,” she says. There’s no pleasure to be had at all, and her only option is to wait out the “final count” until she feels a greater sense of home and independence from her unreliable satellite lover.

Ribbon Bows

This song, with its whimsical lyrics and references to idle revelry, is something of a drinking ballad for our inert, depressed narrator. There’s a painful sort of don’t-care about it, and it also suggests that she continues to be available to the man who let her down so badly – “you want your love, come and get your love,” she shrugs, “I only took it back because I thought you didn’t.” Actually, as pitiful as it sounds, most people have been in this situation – the relationship’s basically over and you should move away for your own self-respect, but you still love the other person, and so you get a few drinks in you and before you know it, drunk texts (“all day you hassle me with trifles”) and listless hookups, even though you’re painfully conscious you ought not to be doing that. “I do reserve the right to repeat all my same mistakes,” she says, and lays it out more explicitly later in the song – “I get so sad” late at night, and “particularly when I start to tip my glass,” she can’t say no, even though it’s the kind of decision that makes you examine your worldview later, the “take my god to task” she describes. And “what you have told me you cannot erase” – she’s had it driven home in many ways that she can’t change this man, and yet “I keep on saying and I do believe it is not too late,” the futile hope that characterizes the ways in which she continues her alcohol-laced codependency with this situation.

Kingfisher

Absolutely the most difficult song on the record to theorize at, the stately, elaborate Kingfisher may have a poetic or historical reference in there somewhere, but I can’t get at it. With its imagery of bombs and volcanoes and even allusions to the afterlife, it seems a poem about the relationship’s final combustion, folding it away and placing it in history – “in this life, who did you love?” Whatever it is, it’s clear that the relationship’s become too ill to save, the way that the aftermath of an eruption and its “drifting ashes” choke all the life that surrounds it: “I can bear a lot, but not that pall,” she says, a final concession. “He loved me just like a little child” is sweet and complex; to be loved like a child is very compelling to a codependent individual, even if that kind of imbalance of power is undesirable in a healthy adult relationship. “A little child loves a little lamb,” she adds, reflecting on the early and innocent days of their relationship (she does this in “In California” too, missing “another who is a little older… carried me up.”) The song’s peak – “I had a dream you came to me,” is so well-constructed it never loses its impact. But that her former lover tells her “you shall not do me harm anymore” recognizes how destructive she’s been to him. It’s not so unusual to make songs, even an entire album, about heartbreak, but Have One On Me is especially remarkable for how well the narrator encapsulates the role that the violence of her own needs played in the explosion of the partnership. She knows she’s hurt him, too. Surgically he’s cut her out of him – “with your knife, you evicted my life from its little lighthouse on the seashore” where she once kept watch in a fashion that ultimately smothered. The song ends with the visceral description of heartbreak as a blody “atom bomb”. It’s all blown up.

Does Not Suffice

The song uses a melodic callback to “In California,” the last time that she physically separated herself from her lover, to back the careful inventory she takes as she, with finality, packs her things to move out. It’s all finery she describes, elaborate clothing, fabric and jewelry as if to suggest an admission to being difficult to maintain. The record began with ‘Easy’, during which she promised him she’d be easily made happy if only he’d just let her care for him; in this song, she admits “how easy I was not.” It’s an important admission to both parties: In ‘Easy’, she’d lied, “Honey, you please me even in your sleep”, but in her departure she finally confesses that what this man, not ready to settle down, has been able to give back “does not suffice.” There’s no clean resolution; the man will “deny the evidence” of how she’s suffered, but it seems she’s no longer angry, just final: “I have gotten into some terrible trouble beneath your blank and rinsing gaze,” she marvels softly. He’s never wanted to share his life fully with her, no matter how hard she tried at every juncture to love, cajole and coerce it; she imagines he’ll be happy having his “boundless bed” alone to himself – “everywhere I tried to love you is yours again, and only yours,” she states grimly. The song ends with a description of the place she’s vacated – “unburdened hooks and empty drawers” where she used to keep her things alongside his – and the wistful “la la la” she sings seem to drift further and further away, as if echoing in an empty room as she leaves it behind. TC mark

Leigh Alexander

Leigh Alexander

Leigh Alexander is news director of industry trade site Gamasutra, and author of the Sexy Videogameland weblog. Her …

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