Joanna Newsom’s February 2010 release on Drag City Records, Have One on Me, is no longer new news, but given the length of the album—its 18 tracks clock in at two hours—it requires a long, simmering listen. The album’s widespread reception in The New York Times and Frieze exposes Newsom’s crossover appeal and like Rodarte, whose fashion lines translate better in an artworld context than in terms of ready-to-wear street style, Newsom has been embraced in the arts, her elusive narratives and neo-Baroque orchestrations are motifs already familiar to contemporary art.
Newsom’s lyrics concern themselves with the stuff of pop songs, of love and loss, but they are enrobed with complex rhymes and fanciful metaphors that border on children’s fables—however tinged with the sorrowful fates of her “baby birch,” “kingfisher,” and “dog-sized horse.” All the various events described by Newsom focus on the body as a full vessel of complicated emotions, with bones as “soft as chalk,” a heart as “heavy as an oil drum,” and a pliability that allows her to be folded in the “cupboard with a bottle of champagne” by a former lover who still haunts her.
The concept of the body, however small, as containing the whole world is Newsom’s contribution to a year of turning inward, usually with an attempt, however unrealizable, with obtaining empathy with others, i.e. Marina Abramovic. The body as the entire world, although by no means a novel approach to songwriting, is one that converges the seemingly unceasing political and social disasters of our time with our just as significant disasters enacted on a personal scale.