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First Listen: Joanna Newsom

Some make music because they want to, but Joanna Newsom makes music because she has to — at least that's my guess. Newsom possesses the sort of artistic bravado that could only come from inner passion. She's just released her latest vision: A work called Have One on Me, it's two hours long, it fills three discs, it hardly has a hook or a hit, and you simply must hear it.

Actually, I'll rephrase that: You must hear "Have One on Me" when you're ready for a musical adventure. This isn't casual listening, and while that's usually code for "This record is hard to get through," this isn't a difficult record. It's even pleasant enough to put on in the background, but what you lose from a casual listen is the poetry and grace of an album filled with love and loss. I think Newsom is a magnificent storyteller.

These lines are from the title track:

It was dark; I was drunk and half-dead,

And we slept, knocking heads,

Sitting up in the star-smoking air,

Knocking heads like buoys

And a few lines later:

Meanwhile, I will raise my own glass

to how you made me fast

and expendable

and I will drink to your excellent health,

and your cruelty

Will you have one on me?

If you're still not sure whether you want to spend the next few hours with Newsom, I suggest trying the song "Baby Birch." Texturally, it's one of the most compelling tracks on a record with a lot of orchestral adventures. This song, however, has more textural counterpoint, with an edgy electric guitar appearing alongside Newsom's harp. That electric guitar is performed by Ryan Francesconi, and he's also playing acoustic guitar, Bulgarian tambura (long-necked lute) banjo, mandolin and soprano recorder — and that's just on the one song. Francesconi did the arrangements and conducting on the record, though Newsom wrote her own harp and vocal arrangements.

Those vocals are the friendliest and most welcoming I've heard from her: Her voice sounds richer, more restrained and relaxed — perhaps the result of adjustments she's made after developing vocal-cord nodules in early 2009. Those small squeaks I've come to love are still there, but they're less frequent and more effective. There's new beauty in a voice that's traditionally been, to put it diplomatically, polarizing.

This is a lot of music. I'm still taking it all in, and I can't do it on a whim. But Have One on Me is a journey worth taking.

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In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.
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