TERRY GROSS, host:
Joanna Newsom, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter from California, has just released a three-disc album called "Have One on Me." Newsom accompanies herself on harp and piano with occasionally elaborate arrangements featuring strings and horns.
Rock Critic Ken Tucker says "Have One on Me" is an anti-concept album, an extended piece of work that rewards the work of the listener.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. JOANNA NEWSOM (Singer-songwriter) (Singing) (Unintelligible) to the show. Hello, my old country, hello. I started to just beginning to play and I have never in my life (unintelligible). And it's my heart.
KEN TUCKER: Clocking in at over two hours on three discs, you can't help but feel that Joanna Newsom's is ambitious; what you don't feel, even listening to the songs that unfurl for five or six or nine minutes, is that she's self-indulgent. "Have One on Me" consists of a series of meditations on the shifting moods within a romance, or detailing scenes of riding horses in the country, or describing dreams.
In part because of the dreamy urgency of the music, Newsom is one of the few people who can get away with chronicling her nocturnal reveries without sounding like a stream-of-consciousness bore - quite the contrary.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. NEWSOM: (Singing) Last night aching, you were in my dreams. Several extendable limbs were at stake. You (unintelligible) spinning realms. All sentiments Indian given in (unintelligible). I was brought in on a (unintelligible) of the many bodies beautiful women brought to this place to be examined. Swinging on an elephant take princess of India. We both...
TUCKER: Newsom sings with a delicate precision, in a high trill. When combined with her piano and her harp and melodies that twist and swirl, she's drawn comparisons to everyone from Joni Mitchell to a wood nymph. She says in one song that she yearns for easiness, but whether she's talking about her love life or constructing the elaborate architecture of verses that tower like skyscrapers only to evaporate into clouds, Newsom's music is rarely easy.
(Soundbite of song, "Easy")
Ms. NEWSOM: (Singing) : Easy, easy My man and me We could rest and remain here, easily We are tested and pained by What's beyond our bed We are blessed and sustained By what is not said.
No-one knows what is coming Or who will harvest what we have sewn Or how Ive been dulling and dumbing In the service of the heart alone
Or how I am worn to the bone By the river And in the river made of light I'm your little life-giver I will give my life Haven't you seen what Ive seen Don't you know what you ought to do I was born to love And I intend to love you Down in the valley
TUCKER: At one point on "Have One on Me," Joanna Newsom sings, give love a little shove and it becomes terror. On a different song, she repeats the phrase Love you again over and over and over until the words become abstract accented syllables of a certain delirious beauty.
I'm usually pretty impatient with the musings of a meandering romantic, but the more I listened, the more I realized I was wrong to characterize Newsom and her music in this way. It possesses both narrative heft and a slippery speediness. Over 18 songs of art-rock, Newsom is extravagant, brainy and inexhaustible just the sort of companion you'd like on a long trip into the uncharted territory she creates here.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Have One on Me" by Joanna Newsom. You can hear a full concert with Joanna Newsom at nprmusic.org. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
I'm Terry Gross and this is NPR.