With her narrow features, unworldly voice and almost supernatural command of the harp, Joanna Newsom has in the past been compared to an elf. But although the San Francisco singer's previous albums were suitably epic, her latest LP makes them look like mere flights of fancy. Clocking in at more than two hours and sprawling across a trilogy of discs, Have One on Me truly is her Lord of the Rings.
Musical supertankers such as this often gain a reputation for being unwieldy. Take the Beatles' White Album, for example, which feels like a scrapbook of disparate ideas in varying states of completion and with feet in different continents at the same time. But despite its immense length (most songs nudge the eight-minute mark) Have One on Me sounds incredibly well-honed. With its succinct orchestral arrangement and Newsom's fascinating lyrical and melodic constructions, it's incredibly difficult to find any wasted moments.
But just as the quality never dips, it also feels like there's surprisingly little variation between the 18 songs. Indeed, it's possible to think of the album as a single piece of music, albeit an incredibly ambitious one. Having played the record in its entirety four times, I still can't tell most of the songs apart. But it's vastness and impenetrability also holds the answer to some of its majesty.
In an age when musical careers can be built on an artist's prowess with a laptop, Newsom, with her thoroughly authentic blend of jazz, folk, world and classical elements, offers a hugely refreshing alternative to the prevailing approach. And that's before you even talk about the voice. On her debut, 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender, she sounded more Wicked Witch of the West than Dorothy, despite being just 22 at the time. Then on 2006's magnificent Ys, she transformed her tones into something that belonged in the court of King Henry VIII.
Here, Newsom has pulled off another transformation: she's learnt how to sing. The idiosyncratic squeaks and yelps that peppered previous vocal performances have been toned down and, in some places lost altogether, in favour of a silkier, more alluring touch. Although Newsom seems to have made a conscious effort to become less odd (aside from choosing to release a triple album, that is) the singer hasn't exactly had her wings clipped. When taken in the context of its vast entirety, the album is no less rewarding than her previous works - although it certainly lacks the unabridged energy and sense of fun that made them such a delight.
But while the songstress has reined in some of her quirks, Joanna Newsom 3.0 is not a distillation of the old model. The album still boasts the swooping time changes and baffling song structures for which she has become known. The songs are also full of drama, passion and (as anyone who's witnessed Newsom's live show will testify) finger-numbingly intense harp playing. While some might miss the impish excitement that exuded from her previous releases, there's more than enough wonderfulness here to explore for days. We all have to grow up some time; if only we could all do it so brilliantly.