Tracks

Joanna Newsom: "Good Intentions Paving Company"

(2010)

By Sam Donsky | 9 February 2010

Here we are again, talking about “normal.” Here we are, falling for the same shit as ever, calling it a less precious tempo, the Re-Death of Auto-Tune, some primitive growth on the path back from “strange.” Here we are thinking Joanna Newsom’s made both a boring record and a greatest hit, both a gesture to the middle and a motion to the top. Here we are, and here it is. Meanwhile, surprise! It’s, umm, pretttty much folk music.

Leaving us right back where we started. And by “where we started” I mean where your parents did. “Good Intentions Paving Company” is, from the neutral perspective, a winning song—an impressive streamline of Newsom’s sound into folk’s post-Joni ether. The melody, all piano rolling over drums, is immediate and one of her best. Her vocals—though I’m sure some will disagree—make the pop transition with ease.

But “Good Intentions” also rather clearly represents the flip-side of these sentiments, and, no matter how honest the word “mature” feels, is something of a denunciation of that which has made her unique. When Newsom took her lyrics down a notch on (the otherwise mesmerizingly complex) Ys, it felt like a necessary step to give the record some breathing room. In the more digestible surroundings of “Good Intentions,” however, this same reduction comes off as surprisingly bland. The same could be said of the song’s piano-centrism, which, from around the four-minute mark onward, serves reminder that an answer to the question “What do you get when you shoot for Joni and miss?” is “Jewel.” An overstatement, perhaps—I’ll meet you at “Feist” if you insist—but it cannot be understated how VH1 this goes down.

Even on her most inspired tip, many have been unable to separate Newsom from the sum of her oddest parts: a funny singer with XS control of an XL thesaurus. In this respect, as a single for the unconverted (re: Your Mom), “Good Intentions” turns a pretty neat trick; the road to Starbucks has been paved with worse. And yet it’s ultimately a matter less of demand than supply: Joanna Newsom has made a song that feels like it already exists. Neutral perspective aside, that’s just sort of a bummer.