“Good Intentions Paving Company” — Joanna Newsom
Earlier this year, Drag City released three songs at different times from the mysterious Have One On Me—the peaceful “‘81”, the fun road song “Good Intentions Paving Company”, and the difficultly dense “Kingfisher”. All of these were glimpses of what Joanna Newsom’s new work would be like, and each one of these could have easily been my song of the year. However, I am unfortunately forced to choose. “‘81” reminds me of The Milk-Eyed Mender and “Kingfisher” reminds me of Ys; but it is the fantastic “Good Intentions Paving Company” that sounds entirely fresh, like nothing I have ever heard before. I would like to mention here that this song is best heard with head/earphones or really loud in the car.
The song starts off easy enough: a few simple piano notes repeated a few times, and Joanna’s vocals. Simple, lovely, and what you could expect from Ms. Newsom. But then suddenly, more instrumentation follows in and something I was not expecting: multiple layers of Joanna’s vocals—maybe three or four of them. Each one of them sounds different, and they are richly woven together so beautifully. But as I mentioned before, this is a fun song, and Joanna is happy to tease you; the layered vocals disappear and we are back to just her with the layered instruments. She builds the song up with various humorous lyrics (how wonderful is the line “I regret how I said to you / ‘Honey, just open your heart’ / When I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar”), and the music progresses forward with Neal Morgan’s percussion and Ryan Francesconi’s acoustic orchestration. The layered vocals happily return and they jump up, down, and around tongue twisters within the lyrics—sounding so graceful and effortless.
This song is describing the initial portions of a relationship, and the music I just described so wonderfully expresses all the excitement of starting something new. But this is Joanna Newsom, and we are only twenty miles away from the show, so she has to attempt to tell you as much as possible before we arrive at the end. At the middle of the song, things slow down with the fleeing of the extra instrumentation, and we are left with Newsom and her piano. This second half of the song shows the hesitation of starting something new, as it can be frightening to fall for someone “as easy as falling asleep”. Joanna’s voice and lyrics are gorgeous here—lines like “but, like after the rain, / step out of the overhang. That’s all” or “I am at home on that range” are sung simply enough to make you teary eyed. I also find the amount of self-reflexivity interesting: she references her own singing, she provides two-sided meanings to the idea of her as a performer, and she asks her lover to hold her until she can’t remember her name. Like the overhang, Joanna is asking her lover and the car to just stop for a second and offer safety for a moment—from the outside and from herself.
The second half of this song is so plainly beautiful, and it features some of my favorite lyrics from Have One On Me: ”But, in our quiet hour, / I feel I see everything, / and I’m in love / with the hook / upon which everyone hangs.” I am so incredibly attached to this part—it’s like there is too much love, but in the best way possible. Something new is starting, and although there is hesitation and fear, sometimes you have to fold at the top of your game. It is one of the most intriguing forms of love presented in Have One On Me, and it’s told so incredibly.
In the span of seven minutes, or twenty miles, Joanna Newsom has constructed a masterpiece that reflects on something universal—the excitement and fear to love. While some people may detest the idea of letting yourself go, Joanna is putting forth the idea of risking yourself and driving down the unknown road you turned onto. And maybe once we open up the honey jar, fall for someone as easy as falling asleep, and step out of the overhang, we’ll finally pull over to be held and fall in love with the hook upon which everyone hangs.