Album Review: Joanna Newsom – Divers
Divers (Drag City)
It only takes the most cursory of listens to appreciate why so many are drunk on Joanna Newsom’s wordplay. Even those who aren’t so keen on the work of the Californian singer/composer/actor/general polymath tend to size up her encyclopaedic vocabulary as one of her central attributes, and indeed, Newsom’s four-strong discography is bursting at the seams with intoxicating language drawn from arcane phrases and precise poetry. The much-celebrated ‘Sapokanikan’ offers a thinly-veiled history of Manhattan Island, recounted through various perspectives, temporal shifts, and regular references to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In her characteristically florid tongue, Newsom rushes along the timeline of a land discovered, raised, ravaged and rebuilt, examining how the city’s identity is continually reborn anew. If only they could, New York’s ancestral inhabitants would “look, and despair” upon the blissfully ignorant parades conducted on soil under which once-cherished bodies rest. In five minutes, some legacies are lost and others are twisted into unrecognisable new forms. And that’s just the single.
The poetic distillation of such rich and imaginative themes is impressive enough to delight even the stiffest of scholars, but the musical arrangement that preserves these themes of time and expiration is just as wondrous. Crystal-clear and moving in something close to a strut, ‘Sapokanikan’ is utterly accessible in its beauty as well as admirable in breadth. The neatest details aren’t cloying enough to irritate, instead neatly serving the gathering momentum of the whole: the drums that snap to attention when Newsom namechecks them twenty-eight seconds in, the steady ascension of trombone and recorder that lift the song’s trajectory until it crescendos. There are those who find Newsom’s attention to her craft gratingly flamboyant, but such derisions are laughably obtuse. This song – as with every song on Divers – is a remarkable compositional feat, encouraging boundless repetition and rediscovery in an age where music’s value is muddied by the day.
If that sounds a bit lofty, then in more simple words, the work behind the end result is breathtaking – as has increasingly been the case with Newsom’s music. She may not be breaking new ground in the strengths she displays on Divers, but here her skills are deployed in a much more instantaneous fashion than on the likes of Ys and Have One On Me. Running at a comparably manageable length and with her topical horizons broader than previously, Divers appears more conventional on the surface but is just as brimful of beauty as any of her past releases. As expressive as ever, her voice is soft yet flexible, her rapturous falsetto braced with a time-tested confidence, clearly demonstrated on the final ecstatic rushes of ‘Time, as a Symptom’ and the theatrical ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’. Above all, her powerful delivery emphasises the conviction of her writing, making the album’s concepts resounding enough to linger beyond the record’s close. It’s a masterful balancing act when taken with such a stunning display of instrumental prowess, but the duplicity lies in how simple she makes it sound. At this rate, Newsom could produce a song that stretches to ninety minutes while still sounding more organic than the average contemporary single.
Having focused her gaze on Time (capitalised because its significance on the album practically renders it as its own character), Newsom immerses herself in its associated concerns: mortality, love, loss, companionship, the changing of landscapes both natural and man-made. Thankfully, there’s space in abundance, the ideas landing considered rather than crashing like waves. ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ provides one of the album’s more straightforward narratives, rolling between sea-shanty (echoing the 19th-Century ‘Lowlands Away’) and piano ballad as Newsom sings about fleets of military men bound to fight wars in different time periods, battling their own ghosts and precursors in an unending cycle of futility. The electrifying ‘Leaving the City’ opens up the dichotomy between stasis and movement, soaring to a choppy climax that marks the record’s most aggressive moment. Most spellbinding is the title track, following on the heels of the gentle wisdom of ‘The Things I Say’ (“our lives come easy and our lives come hard / and we carry them like a pack of cards”) with glittering elegance, sounding as expansive and encompassing as the depths Newsom sings of her lover disappearing into. The song’s intimacy is as striking as its chord changes, drawn between two lives wrenched apart by Time’s relentless pressures.
One of the album’s most magical moments arrives at the close of the twinkling opener ‘Anecdotes’. For the final verse, Newsom proffers a deceptively simple quatrain: “And daughter, when you are able / come down and join! The kettle’s on / and your family’s ’round the table. / Will you come down before the sun is gone?” Followed by a twinkling harp descant and one final flourish of piano keys, the sentiment could so easily be syrupy, but Newsom’s poise – as well as the atmosphere conjured over the preceding minutes – invests her words with a clear emotional gravity. Amid her more complex and cryptic musings, verses such as this sit significantly, tingling with a poignancy that feels thoroughly earned.
Divers offers plenty for Newsom diehards to lap up, and makes a strong case as the optimal gateway record for newcomers to her music. In terms of its place within the artist’s canon, Divers lacks the bolder approach of Ys and Have One On Me; records which captured minds in different ways. However, pitting these albums against one another feels meaningless, given that Divers so easily ranks among the most beautiful and enveloping listens of the decade so far. There is so much to praise: the riddles buried like pearls, the inviting lushness of the instrumentation, and the frankly astounding songcraft from a mind as expansive as the vistas Newsom’s imagery portrays. Divers is a mesmerising album, and one which should triumph over Time’s cruelty for years to come.
“We came to see Time is taller than Space is wide.”
Posted on November 13, 2015, in The Music World and tagged Album Review, Andy Samberg, Anecdotes, Divers, Drag City, Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom, Sapokanikan, Time as a Symptom, Waltz of the 101st Lightborne, Ys. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.