Illustration by Josh J. Holinaty
When Joanna Newsom sings, it’s as if the voices of a prepubescent girl and an elderly woman have been mashed together into a shrill, semi-consonant sound struggling to hold a tune as it quivers from note to note. Even if I couldn’t come up with another reason for despising Newsom’s brand of harp-based orchestral folk, I’d be content with just blaming her pipes.
Admittedly, Newsom and I didn’t start on good terms. I’m not much for fussy, multi-part song constructions, so Ys probably wasn’t an ideal introduction. Her simpler debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, might have made a better first impression. But even then, other elements would have driven me bonkers: her preciousness, her insularity. Have One on Me, released this year, is a turnoff in concept alone—the vanity of a triple album is hard to swallow.
Am I being fair? Her voice—which the Village Voice mocked as having “a Monty Python quality”—may be off-putting, but there’s no question it’s unique, and it’s hardly the first time a vocalist’s distinctiveness has been a selling point (I spent my teenage years as a Billy Corgan apologist, after all). More troubling is that I enjoy the work of several male artists who play in the same genre sandbox, from Sufjan Stevens to Owen Pallett.
That said, I think my anti-Newsom stance is more a product of my pop sensibilities than any gender bias. Stevens and Pallett exhibit a passion almost wholly missing in Newsom’s music. Their records sound ready to take on the world, whereas Newsom’s albums—with their muted sense of rhythm and stubbornly-buried hooks—sound ready to win over an empty concert hall.
In a Pitchfork column titled “Why We Fight,” Nitsuh Abebe argues that “Newsom’s music feels private, a strange artifact waiting for you to come engage with it.” I’d go further: Newsom’s music doesn’t care two figs what I think about it. It neither asks nor demands anything of its listener. It’s simply there—quiet and complicated, but with no interest in reaching out and inspiring me to feel anything. If there’s going to be a conversation about what role these songs could play in my life, the songs expect me to start it.
Is it wrong to want my music to fight for my attention? Should I not expect a record to make some argument—any argument—for why I should give a damn? I look for records that offer up something to react to: a kiss, a shove, anything in between. I want the tease of “Be My Baby,” the rabid snarl of “Debaser,” the fractured melody of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Nothing about Newsom suggests the time and energy I could invest in her overlong madrigal muddles would actually get me any closer to enjoying them. So I’m not interested.
On Have One on Me, there’s one notable exception. At the record’s end, following two exhausting hours of symphonic meanderings, the album concludes with a dissonant mess of piano, drums and strings, colliding into a wave of distortion. For the first time, Newsom seems conscious of the fact that someone is at the other end of the stereo, eager to make contact. And in a flash, it’s over. If that’s the extent of her come-hither, I say, No thanks.
Related on maisonneuve.org: