Number 8: Joanna Newsom – “Good Intentions Paving Company”

When you’re (and by you, of course, I mean Joanna Newsom) a professional harpist with a childlike voice that could scare the stripe off a skunk, and you’ve painted yourself into a corner somewhat by releasing impossibly eccentric after impossibly eccentric release, there’s only one place you can go to keep people guessing.

To the mainstream.

OK, not quite. On “Good Intensions Paving Company,” she still sings like… Joanna Newsom. But she did the unthinkable in 2010: she made an accessible, listenable, and even catchy song.

And it’s fantastic. Who knew? Newsom is always going to be divisive because of her vocals, which will probably perpetually limit her licensing opportunities (let’s just say it’s hard to see her pulling a Phoenix anytime soon). I’m not even going to bother explaining why — it’s well-covered territory at this point. But she’s always excelled as a composer with big ideas. Here, she tries her hands at piano pop songwriting in the vein of Carol King.

On “Good Intensions Paving Company,” Newsom deftly embraces a concept she rarely has in the past: less is more.

Think melodies, harmonies and a chorus where a chorus belongs. And a piano. Weird, right? Nary a harpsichord or Renaissance-tinged abstract imagery to be found. There’s a trombone, but it’s not part of an orchestral arrangement. It’s a lone trombone, playing a light rhythm and blues riff. Her much-discussed voice is laid bare for much of the song, and it even sounds a little bit soulful. And…pretty. On the outro, the trombone is joined by a muted banjo, church organ, and a percussionist sparsely brushing a drum kit. And it all sounds great.

Lyrically, she covers one of the most well-traversed metaphors for wistful songwriters out there: driving on the open road. I feel like I’m spending a lot of time describing how experimental this song is not, which is kind of counterintuitive unless you consider the source here.

Yeah, it’s a seven-minute song, and yeah, she released it on a triple album that spans more than two hours. She’s Joanna Newsom, after all. She’d be diluting her brand if her work wasn’t somehow intimidating and weird. But at least for me, I needed a starting point to get into her because she’s such an acquired taste. “Good Intentions Paving Company” is a good starting point for anyone who’s ever been curious but unsuccessful at enjoying Newsom’s stuff. It’s a great song where Newsom does something different (by which I mean not different), and really showcases her talents as one of the most creative, diverse and talented songwriters out there.


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