Features | Awards

The Benjy Compson Award for Contentiously Worthwhile Inscrutability

By Lindsay Zoladz | 8 December 2010

Joanna Newsom
Have One on Me
(Drag City; 2010)

If there’s one thing that we can all agree about Joanna Newsom, it’s that she doesn’t go easy on us. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a mark of her genius, proof of her pretension, or maybe a little bit of both. Ys (2006) may have seemed like a challenging listening experience back in 2006, but now it’s a cake walk compared to the three-disc, two-hour sprawl of Have One on Me.

Is part of my love for this album an appreciation of Newsom’s audacity in releasing a record like this in the “ZOMG the Beatles are on iTunes” era? Totally. When I think of how and where and when I listened to music in 2010, so few of those contexts seem conducive to the patience and attention that this record so brazenly demands. It’s provocative in a way that feels totally, exhilaratingly liberated from the constraints of how most of us experience music anymore. And the handful of times this year I was able to connect with it felt like a liberation from all of that too: a feeling of being lost in the woods with nary a breadcrumb in sight, and realizing that instead of fighting it, I was better off sinking blissfully into the muck.

But has this album also bullied me into loving it by making me confront my own feelings of inadequacy? Um, yeah. I’ve got a complicated thing going on with Have One on Me. I doubt I’m alone in saying that the times I tried and failed to listen to it overwhelmingly outnumbered the times I actually got through even one of the discs. And for every time I decided to listen to something else instead—or more likely, jump between listening to a few other things—I felt impatient and lazy for not having the attention span to devote two uninterrupted hours to a very good record.

But then again, do you have that kind of time? And is that even how we’re supposed to listen to it? Is the bombastic inaccessibility of Newsom’s record really just a front to drive us away from asserting any kind of mastery of it and towards experiencing it on a more personalized level—choosing different entry points, different discs, putting it on shuffle, or reassembling our own track list? Who knows, but I love that at this juncture where I feel like I’m supposed to have something definitive to say about it, I’m still grappling with questions. Have One on Me is one of those albums that reflects your insecurities as a listener back at you. A lot of people will be put off by that kind of provocation, but some (myself included) will think it’s flat-out gorgeous enough to deserve that kind of anachronistic patience.