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

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This is a continuation of the analysis of Joanna Newsom’s three-part record; see introduction and part one here, part three here.

On A Good Day

“Hey, hey, hey, the end is near,” she sings ambivalently. It’s not a “good” day at all. The narrator received an unsatisfactory resolution to the issue of putting down roots in the preceding track, Baby Birch, and without totems of commitment on the horizon, she’s disappointed: “I had begun to fill in all the lines – right down to what we’d name her,” she says.

Aware that the future is unlikely to bring what she wants, our narrator finds her relationship in the stasis of chronic discontent, that period of time when you stay with someone even though you increasingly want less and less of the same things, when the happy future is increasingly uncertain.

“I will stay for the remainder,” she consents to wait out the relationship’s end. With “good” days here and there, there’s no imminent reason to leave, but nothing to look forward to – she knows her partner isn’t going to change and her feelings have cooled just like the frozen creek she cites in the third verse.

“Will you leave me be so that we can stay true to the path that you have chosen?” she suggests, implying she has resigned to the fact her needs are not being met. The resentment in this powerless inertia is interesting in contrast with the relatively winsome and upbeat tone of the song. It serves as a direct counterpart to the only other song on the record with “good” in its title – in Good Intentions Paving Company we have a pair consenting to move forward together out of sheer love despite insecurity and an uncertain road, and in On A Good Day, you have a pair consenting to moving forward together even though at least one of them has completely given up hope.

You And Me, Bess

Who’s Bess? She can’t be referring to any other than Black Bess, the fierce and famed steed of notorious horse thief and highwayman Dick Turpin. As the legend goes – and especially as portrayed in this WikiSource page; the poem ‘Black Bess’;  by Eliza Cook – this criminal man mastered a strong and wild horse, and then rode her to death trying to flee his pursuers, an escape he wouldn’t have made without her sacrifice.

Remember the “little black mare” from “no provenance,” the spectre of apparently-groundless insecurity that turned out only to be a small and enfeebled old nag the size of a dog? That horse is back, and now she’s large and legendary, a looming and vicious terror.

The narrator sees herself just like Bess, a brave sacrifice made for her dangerous man. The entire second disc of ‘Have One On Me’ begins to illustrate a shift in power; the first disc’s determined lover, a difficult woman with an immutable desire to love, has had that boundless well of giving exploited, as often happens in codependent relationships.

She loved this man into abiding with her and even for a time felt protected by him, but as he evades commitment, the second disc shows our narrator’s journey into powerlessness and martyrdom. She knows she’ll “hang” for it, just as highwayman Turpin was hung for horse theft.

In California

You know when it’s not working, and it’s not because you don’t want it to work, but because it just won’t? And so you separate, you go on a ‘break’ so you can figure things out, you realize you need to be alone so that you can think, rediscover the self that has been so completely “sunk in this shunt” in all the mess of an intense relationship?

That’s where we find our narrator in this song, and the distance and the sense of limbo has intensified both her love and her sadness at the prospect that she may “spend my life in spitting distance of the love that I have known”, on whose caregiving of her (like in the stronger days represented in “No Provenance”) she fondly reflects.

The singer of this song accepts that there is some frailty in her codependency – “my heart became a drunken runt” that contributed to the unhealth of the relationship, and that “I must set myself apart” and address it before any decisions can be made about the love. The pain of codependent relationships can only be resolved through separation; “you cannot come and see me,” she urges, lest her lover “cross the border of my heart.” This is the first of two songs on the record that suggest an outright split between the couple.

That line – “you cross the border of my heart” – is one of the greatest on the record because of how Joanna’s voice captures all those emotions in the way she sings it: sad resignation and sweet longing, loneliness, all at once.

She knows she must address the way she’s always sacrificed herself for others, as codependents do, resenting all the things they don’t get back. Her inner garden, the seat of her own spirit that she set aside in ‘81’, has still not been well-tended, sown with “untidy furrows”, as she has mostly been “content to see my garden grow so sweet and full of someone else’s flowers.” It’s  an appropriate return to garden metaphor, since if ‘81’ is a birth and origin song that desires innocence, this is a re-birth song that addresses guilt.

But the pull of love is still strong, and “time will tell” if she can address these issues and become a proper partner. However, the forecast isn’t excellent for her success; she’s uncertain and directionless, incapable of being alone, “standing in the doorway like a sentinel” capable of not much but waiting to go back to her man at “my home.”

The passing of time is painful in the face of this kind of inertia, and the way Joanna references the call of a cuckoo clock at the song’s end is heartbroken; it sounds like sobbing.

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    • Nikkos350

      I am enjoying this series almost as much ass I enjoyed the record- kudos!

    • AaronWB

      I thought “You and Me, Bess” was a reference to Bess from “Porgy and Bess,” but your explanation makes alot more sense given the “stolen horse” lyric.

      Really waiting for your analysis of “Esme.”

    • Charles

      It makes good reading especially whilst listening to the record. It even adds to the record for me with all the references you have picked up on. Such a wonderful album and a great piece.

    • http://suncoveringcoat.tumblr.com A.M. Thomas

      I'm pretty sure the lyrics of “You And Me, Bess” are also heavily influenced by Lars Von Trier's film “Breaking the Waves.” I remember reading an interview with J.N. somewhere (pfork?) where she said that it's one of her favorite films. Also, the main character in the film is named Bess and the line “you and me, bess” is actually in the movie. AND, like the whole first 'stanza' or whatever of the song is about waves breaking.

      • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

        ooh, interesting, i didn't know that, thank you

      • http://turning20corners.wordpress.com Sho

        Ohhh, that sounds really interesting, I must try and find this movie now. Thank you for the heads up! :)

    • Mark

      I wouldn't be surprised if the multiple sources on You and Me Bess aren't a clever Newsom poetic mash up.

      What a great read this is. Looking forward to the next part.

    • http://turning20corners.wordpress.com Sho

      You caught a couple of references I absolutely missed! Thanks for the post, really looking forward to part three (esp. Kingfisher, that song breaks me).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1388973722 Rafik Bougueroua

      Excellent work! As someone who doesn't really speak english, I feel I have only glimpses at what the lyrics of this album (my favorite) could really mean. So this is really very helpful, thank you! I can see now how the irony and the cruelty of some of the lines went over my head, and how the architecture of the album is even more refined than I thought. I'm not sure you're not putting too much of your personal experience into the interpretation, but there's probably no other way to do it, and I think most of the time you're spot on.
      Just one little remark about In California : when she says “my home”, I believe she refers to where she stands (“my home, on the old Milk lake”), and not to where her man is. She is sometimes “fully abandoning any thoughts of anywhere but home “, her home. So perhaps it's not “the pull of love” which is so strong that she's shaking, but the pull of solitude – or being torn between the two (I don't belong to anyone / I don't want to be alone).

      Thank you again.

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      […] Alexander at Thought Catalog writes, of this song: Who’s Bess? She can’t be referring to any other than Black Bess, the […]

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