As I considered a range of options for my Humanities Moment, I instinctively knew it would come down to music, which is the element that moves me most often and intensely in my daily life. However, my tendency to live within particular soundscapes for hours or days on end also means that my moment is entangled with longer histories and hard to pin down in time and space. If anything, the album Have One on Me that yielded my “moment” has taught me a different, more unbounded relationship with time. But first, a little bit of background on the artist and how I discovered her.

I found Joanna Newsom in a Facebook post by a scholar I had met at a James Joyce summer school in Trieste, Italy. I had loved this person’s academic work on literary hoaxes but as our social media afterlives showed us, our most vital point of connection was our love for women musicians with strange voices. I made it a point to check out any song he posted, and in late 2015, one of those songs turned out to be “Sapokanikan” from Newsom’s latest release, Divers. “Sapokanikan” is notorious (within admittedly niche circles) for rhyming its titular word–an indigenous place name–with “Ozymandian”–an adjective crafted from Shelley’s famous poem (“Ozymandias”) about transience, infinity, and human hubris. This parallel is a neat glimpse into how the rest of the song traces the ebb and flow and layering of human histories in a single place. The audacity of it could be obnoxious, just as the music video of Newsom skipping down the streets singing straight into the camera could be precious. But none of it felt overindulgent to me.

The density of the lyrics allowed Newsom’s voice to soar, at moments to hair-raising pitches that could have come straight from her harp or accompanying strings. Her earnest playfulness presented the mythic scope of her song with a disarming wink. And so my love for Joanna Newsom sprouted, easily and effortlessly. At times, I was troubled by how her love of myth led her to paint mystical pictures of “ethnic” cultures, or to string together different cultural references a bit too lightly and whimsically for the material histories of inequity that they grazed against. Nonetheless, I found the grand scale of her work personally liberating, and she always seemed to be aware of the fragility inherent in any overinflated image–whether in the way men saw women, or civilizations saw themselves.

But while I grew obsessed with Newsom’s discography, I could never seem to get into her album Have One on Me. An over two hour-long triple album, it already posed a challenge to attention spans, almost testing the quality of her fans’ devotion. But a bigger problem for me was that the album seemed to lack her trademark energy and graspable forms that usually provided an entry point into her complex compositions. Unlike the sparkling and robust folk tunes of her debut, or the almost classical shifts in pace and melody in her later work, Have One on Me had a meandering, repetitive quality to my ears. The lyrics were devastating as usual, the singing was heartfelt, the overall sound was polished, but I failed to find that hook, that leap, that burst of vibrancy or ethereal lull that would transport me to Joanna’s universe.

At some point in the Spring semester of 2021, I was relying desperately on music to help me complete a dissertation chapter draft while my country was being ravaged by the second wave of COVID-19 and the disregard of a cold-blooded central government. My nerves were frayed–I craved a protective cocoon of music but not one so stimulating that I would be led away from my work. Have One on Me suddenly seemed like a good option. It may have been my least favourite Joanna Newsom album, but it was still Joanna Newsom. The album was expansive, elegant, and my distance from it could only help my focus. It turned out to be a great choice–the intricacy of the sound became a calming swirl around me as I plunged into the depths of my writing.

But after days of writing successfully to Have One on Me, something changed. The album was no longer a soothing but distant friend, no longer an amorphous mass of pretty and mysterious textures. I felt as though I had suddenly obtained the ability to see and hear at close range. Songs had intimately familiar outlines and phrases. The album wasn’t untethered, it was a deeply emotionally grounded narrative that left no stone unturned for the sake of the story that might lurk beneath. In a sense, Have One on Me occupies the most relatable of genres–the breakup album. But like Bjork’s Vulnicura, it is a breakup album that stretches and grasps and generates more than it fixes, fixates, or breaks down. The title track laughingly announces the singer’s separation from a hurtful ex-lover. “Baby Birch” mourns the loss of a baby, never held or seen. “California” makes an emphatic choice to protect the “border of… [the singer’s] heart” but still admits that the powerful habits of love wind her up like a cuckoo clock. It is easy to confuse something capacious for something overindulgent if we have been taught to trust bite-size pieces of wisdom and catharsis. Have on One Me was a vital corrective to those habits that I’ve acquired.

And I could not have been more wrong about the album’s pacing–I realized that everything about it was dynamic. Some songs, like the title track, are a richly embroidered tapestry, with subtle incremental shifts in the musical pattern. “Baby Birch” starts as a slow, pained crooning and swells into a tumultuous but triumphant section with strong percussion. “Go Long,” a bewilderingly compassionate indictment of toxic masculinity, switches between a regular and a high register with an unearthly ease while the shimmering harp in the background takes over in a wordless concluding meditation. The final song, “Does Not Suffice,” imagines the ex-lover’s home slowly returning to a masculine starkness as the singer removes all her items of clothing before her departure. It is once contemptuous and empathetic, self-aggrandizing and vulnerable. The gentle, ambling melody is almost identical to an earlier song, “In California,” with a whiff of added melancholy and fewer variations this time round. The ending however, is a dark and thunderous banging on a cluster of musical instruments all at once.

In the height of my newfound obsession with this album, I listened to it all the time–with headphones on, through my portable speakers, on my laptop speakers, and even directly through my phone. When “Does Not Suffice” drew to a close, my phone surprised me by the sheer contained violence that exploded from its inadequate sound system. As the instruments pounded away, it felt as though there was a ghost trapped in my device. I remember that visceral quality straining past technological barriers as a reminder of much energy there is in Joanna Newsom’s music, and particularly in the album that I had underestimated.

– Anushka Sen (Ph.D. Candidate, teacher, emerging translator)