Upon its release in early 2010, Joanna Newsom’s third full-length album, Have One on Me, received comparisons to frayed West Coast valentines like Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. Despite her travels as a performer and her association with Chicago-based indie label, Drag City, Newsom’s Californian-ness is foundational to her work, particularly on songs like “In California.” Such material may have doubled as an audition for her role as the narrator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Inherent Vice. Though Newsom hails from Nevada City and Anderson reps the Valley, they met in fictional Gordita Beach to retell Thomas Pynchon’s post-60s shaggy detective novel.
Paul Thomas Anderson expanded the role of hippie minor character Sortilège for his adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel after discussing the writer’s work with Newsom at a dinner party. Perhaps he used the singer’s vocal fry, loose phrasing, and linguistic dexterity as guideposts for developing images and worlds that corresponded with Pynchon’s prose. As a musician, Newsom cuts a divisive figure. Like Pynchon and Anderson, the density of her work is at times mistaken for weirdness. Inherent Vice isn’t incoherent—it’s just that it’s about the illusion and the reality of the collapse of social order. Newsom plays the harp, which seems novel until one considers the expense and muscularity nested within its feminine gentility. It doesn’t transport itself to the parlor. She has that voice, an ember-like mezzosoprano, that has been bestowed with descriptors ranging from “lacy, shimmering” to “Lisa Simpson.” And she has an especially literary ear for language. She’s prone to construct rhyme schemes around words like “palanquin” and turn a phrase like “amazing tantric cougars” when profiled by journalists. In other words, Newsom can effectively play a character who says things like “these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers.”
At some point during production, I wonder if Anderson turned to Have One’s second disc, upon which “In California” appears. Many of Inherent Vice’s cinematic influences—Cheech and Chong, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, the Zucker Brothers—add up to slapstick. On songs like “Good Intentions Paving Company,” Newsom channels Randy Newman’s ability to commit jokes to a time signature. But disc two of Have One sustains a deceptive sadness that neatly mirrors Inherent Vice’s faded Polaroid palette of washed-out blues, browns, pinks, and whites. Underneath its silliness there’s a sun-shot melancholy to Inherent Vice. It knows that the ruling class—in this case, Silent Majority Southern Californian real estate developers—can co-opt and exploit countercultural practices, seizing upon the circuit between addiction and rehab as an opportunity for vertical integration. It’s aware that sunburns share a dangerous proximity with heroin, the Manson family, and murder. Its gumshoe protagonist entangles himself in a conspiracy by using his broken heart as a compass. At points it’s unclear whether Have One recounts a break-up or investigates a crime, a fitting ambiguity for a record that makes oblique references to thwarted motherhood and lost children and is speculated to detail the disillusion of Newsom’s relationship with Bill Callahan.
But who is Sortilège, exactly? In Anderson’s film, Newsom splits the difference between a close friend, a scenester, an inner monologue, and a mirage. She’s an omniscient yet transient presence. She offers counsel to private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), slipping in and out of a beach-side eatery, his car, the corners of his memory, and offering guidance in voiceover like a viewer warning the screen during a horror movie.
Inherent Vice isn’t interested in arias, so it doesn’t have the naked emotional resonance of Have One’s loftier moments. It’s biggest payoff is a couple’s tender reunion, and it’s seen from a distance. It’s not bittersweet like “Baby Birch.” There’s no anger in its loneliness to match “Go Long.” And no character is committed enough to deliver a devastating kiss-off like album closer “Does Not Suffice,” which borrows its melody from “In California.” Perhaps this would be different if Inherent Vice was told from the point of view of Sportello’s mysterious ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). But the protagonist cannot really know her, or at least chooses to see only certain parts of her (mainly the angel and the devil).
At face value, Sportello is not a chauvinist. But in his film, Sortilège is but one woman among many—informants, lovers, suspects—who appears periodically, reshaping his investigation with each encounter. If this film and its source material is about the death of the dream of the 60s, its promise of free love and radicalism was a hollow one for women. In one scene, Sportello tracks down a missing person he’s been hired to find at a happening for Vigilant California, an organization that obscures its support of Richard Nixon behind love beads. They’re staging a re-enactment of the Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples are eating pizzas their old ladies made. In “Go Long,” disc two’s operatic peak, Newsom bristles at “the loneliness of you mighty men, with your jaws, and fists, and guitars, and pens, and your sugarlip” rejecting the gender segregation that keeps her from “the firepits with you mighty men.” Can you call it a revolution if the men still sit at the table while the women mind the kitchen?
Sortilège’s presence in Inherent Vice hints at possible alternate histories and narratives beyond Sportello’s case. What potential connections could these women have with each other irrespective of Sportello, co-ops, and the LAPD? What if Sortilège did bong rips with Valley Girl massage therapist Jade (Hong Chau) and spacey waitress Chlorinda (Jillian Bell)? What if ex-junkie drug counselor Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) worked with lawyer Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on a patient’s rehabilitation? What if the story followed Sportello’s taciturn receptionist, Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph), and found Clancy Charlock (Michelle Sinclair) waiting in her apartment? The film crowds the frame and soundtrack with the distinct voices of interesting women. The Summer of Love could not dislodge the misogyny and sexism embedded in the American male psyche, but feminism would continue to trouble it in the decades ahead. Newsom’s narration dares us to imagine a present where women no longer lend their voices to recount men’s stories, but instead raise them to tell their own.