Have One on Me, Joanna Newsom’s new triple album, is a step forward for her in a number of ways; an odd reason is that compared to her first two records, the innovation and greatness of Have One on Me is hardly obvious. Have One on Me is long and almost exhausting. It revels in antiphonies, open spaces, and slow movement; it is a house that you need to live in.
The Times suggests that Newsom’s lyrics require consideration of Donne and Sexton. It’s surely the case that all great pop lyricists would benefit from being treated like poets, but it seems definitely true here (as Carlee’s excellent discussion of “Good Intentions Paving Company”, Olson, and Creeley, makes clear). I’m interested in exploring the Dickinsonian elements of “In California.”
Even before considering the lyrics, “In California” invites Dickinsonian comparison. The song is paired with the final track of the album, “Does Not Suffice (‘In California’ Reprise)” which reprises a single element of “In California” as a repeated verse. “Does Not Suffice” is a tight ballad in rhymed quatrains. “In California” is comparatively a sprawling hot mess: you could say that the element that repeats in “Does Not Suffice” is its chorus, but it seems misguided to label in that way (as Pitchfork says, “at any given moment you’re not sure if you’re listening to a verse, chorus, or bridge”).
The Dickinsonian deviation from standard verse form in “In California” is perhaps insignificant by itself, though the juxtaposition of the tidy “Reprise” emphasizes the song’s formal peculiarity. But the juxtaposition appears in the lyrics too (form, of course, nothing but the extension of content). “Does Not Suffice” is a song about the end of a relationship and is an attempt to make that end tidy (the song begins with the packing up of clothing). The romance of Does Not Suffice is complete; the song starts with “I” and ends with “yours.” The romance of In California is in progress (“sometimes I am so in love with you”) but intentionally deferred and distanced. “You cannot come and see me, for I set myself apart.” The love here is “like a little clock/that trembles on the edge of the hour,/only ever calling out ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo’.” It’s a love that almost speaks its name. This is a song whose erotics is of distance and separation.
Compare in this context Dickinson’s “I cannot live with you – “. Here love is also put away, “Behind the Shelf.” The cracked white Sevres of the housewife and the communion wafer guarded by the Sexton are symbols of the kind of togetherness that is as impossible between the speaker and her beloved as between finite being and God. The lover dangerously eclipses Christ in power and in impossibility: “Because Your Face/Would put out Jesus’ – /That New Grace//Glow plain”.
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Dickinson’s “White Sustenance”–domesticity, holy Communion, perhaps male ejaculate–is what she needs and cannot have; the spiritual distance of prayer is made real by the physical distance of oceans and doors.
To spend my life
of the love that I have known
I must stay here, in an endless eventide.
As with Dickinson the lovers are as close as a gross physical act; but their distance also has the cosmic impossibility of “endless eventide.”
Deferral is pale but it is a sustenance. Is the home of “In California” a place of comfort? California for Newsom is an anti-pastoral “sorry, golden state”. Love and home are disconjoined; or perhaps they’re joined in an “endless eventide” of impossibility, and, Newsom says, that is simply our condition. It’s hard not to compare “In California” with Joni Mitchell’s “California.” But Newsom’s California is only uncomfortably, if at all, a place to be “going home.” (“Take me as I am” is a plea that’s tragically unavailable in “In California.”)
It seems right to apply another Newsom lyric to the Dickinsonian speaker: she is “native to it, but overgrown”, where “it” is love, home, faith. Dickinson ends “Despair – ” and Newsom ends “here,/down in California”; leaving is not an option. As Joni would put it a few years after “California”:
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather