Premature Evaluation: Joanna Newsom Divers
The first thing you need to know about Divers is that it is manageable. Eleven tracks with a combined runtime of 54 minutes might not seem short by most artists’ metrics, but for a Joanna Newsom album five years in the making, following an ambitious triple-LP comprising more than two hours of music, this one feels notably concise. It’s not that Divers is any less elaborate than Newsom’s other work — the album fits enough mysteries, motifs, and allusions to fill a whole season of True Detective into the length of one episode. It’s that for all its many wrinkles, Newsom’s latest is easily the most approachable release of her career.
Every one of her records has come prepackaged with a significant roadblock for listeners. 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender was defined by Newsom’s polarizing voice, an abrasive squawk she has since toned down significantly. 2006’s Ys flouted modern structures and reference points in service of a beautiful baroque sprawl that was closer to classical than pop. And 2010’s more conventional Have One On Me was really fucking long, perhaps the most brazen gauntlet throw-down from an artist whose work has continually grated against her generation’s listening habits. This one presents no such obstacle, and while that might annoy fans who see Newsom’s music as an antidote for an era ruled by instant gratification, the fact that Divers is easy to love doesn’t make it easy listening. As ever, there are levels to this shit.
From compositional complexity to thematic density, a Newsom album is a shelf full of nesting dolls, each one containing its own delicately folded origami. Her songs veer across history and culture, summoning disparate styles and stories into the unmistakable sonic territory she’s established for herself. The now-familiar constants — a medieval concert harp and her voice’s harrowing honks and flutters — can obscure how massively vast and microscopically detailed Newsom’s musical world has become. On Divers, that scenery is constantly shifting, but those details are more intertwined than ever. She sheepishly told The New York Times that her fourth full-length is the closest she’s come to a concept album, using early compositions “Sapokanikan” and “Divers” as narrative and melodic jump-off points for a loose yet meticulous story arc about time.
Specifically, Newsom is concerned with the way everything in our lives feels bound by time’s ceaseless march. Having turned 30 and gotten married in the interim since Have One On Me, here she grasps for flickers of permanence: sometimes in plainspoken terms (lamenting that “my life comes and goes” on “A Pin-Light Bent”), sometimes fantastical (imagining a fleet of time-traveling soldiers waging “a war between us and our ghosts” on “Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne”), sometimes philosophical (on closer “Time, As A Symptom,” she ultimately declares, “Love is not a symptom of time/ Time is just a symptom of love,” a statement fit for pondering if ever there was one). These ruminations come packaged with a daunting quantity of Easter eggs, a series of riddles for listeners to decipher. “Sapokanikan,” for instance, reflects on the impermanence of culture — it’s named for an old Native American village that once stood in the area we now know as Lower Manhattan, and it counts Tammany Hall and Ozymandias among its stops between the past and present. Newsom told us she was amazed at how effectively annotators on Genius.com unpacked the song’s many references:
It really felt like a miracle in that moment, because this is a thing that has been secret and kind of precious to me [and] I put it out in the world and there were people out there deciphering it. There might be literally only six people having this conversation in the whole world, but that’s still pretty amazing. That’s such an incredible feeling.
Divers is designed to be voraciously analyzed in just such a fashion, but listeners need not explore its many intellectual trapdoors and back alleys to enjoy it. Like, say, Lost, you can experience it on a PhD thesis level or just let yourself be captivated by it as a sensory experience. Newsom explained to The Guardian that her top priority is making beautiful, emotionally resonant music, and the album certainly succeeds on that level. Newsom continues to come up with breathtaking melodies and progressions, and arrangers including Dave Longstreth and Nico Muhly help her flesh out that framework into many different shades of elegance.
The variety creeps in subtly, but it’s spellbinding in scope. Among other threads, there are traces of rambling American folk, Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon, ragtime, classic rock, and many schools of classical composition, often bleeding into each other with a sort of dream logic. Opener “Anecdotes” tricks out Newsom’s harp with dark synths and orchestral swells until it resembles a more prim and proper Fiery Furnaces. On “Goose Eggs,” baroque harpsichord music blooms into a twangy barroom ballad, while “Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne” merges rustic British Isles folk music with spunky piano-pop on a level worthy of late-period Beatles. “Divers” is almost a mirror image of Howard Blake’s music from The Snowman, plunging deeper where that story soared higher. And good luck sitting still when that first drum fill arrives to turn “Leaving The City” into a pounding rock epic, one of the most triumphant moments on record in 2015.
The constantly morphing background is gorgeous in its own right — a set of utterly unique, stirring sounds from one of our generation’s greatest composers. But what Newsom has done here feels like an especially momentous achievement when you consider how those sonic panoramas fit into the album’s bigger picture, toying with time and space in a way that mirrors and complements the lyrics. Yes, Divers is an easy pathway into Newsom’s world, but it’s a world worth exploring. Make the effort to plumb its depths and you’ll almost certainly be surprised and delighted by what you find — it might even inspire you to dig back into the rest of her discography and listen more closely. The album’s many sonic and verbal excursions would become a tangled mess in lesser hands, but Newsom took years to make sure she got it right, and her patience paid off. In that sense, time was very much a symptom of love.
Divers is out 10/23 on Drag City.