Over her career, Joanna Newsom has seemingly tried to defy mainstream listeners at every turn. For one, her voice often seems to cause many to shy away from her work. Detractors tend to label it as child-like and shrill, and while these are perhaps unfair criticisms, her vocal style is undoubtedly odd and potentially jarring at first. Ultimately though, her vocals are a true blessing; it is increasingly rare in music that a certifiably unique voice emerges. I’d encourage anyone initially put off by Newsom’s vocals at first to give them a fair chance.
Furthermore, her music tends to be lengthy: 2006’s Ys featured just five drawn-out epics over 54 minutes, and her last effort, 2010’s Have One On Me, was a two hour long triple album. So it may come as a surprise that her latest effort, Divers, contains 11 tracks over a relatively brisk 51 minutes. On Divers, then, some things have changed. Continuing the trend of Have One On Me, the harp, the instrument Newsom is best known for, has a diminished role, with pianos, strings and even electric guitars filling the gaps. Divers is also a loose concept album on the relationship between time and love – but don’t let that put you off, there’s none of the pretension that seems to characterise most concept albums here. One thing that hasn’t changed is the esoteric nature of Newsom’s lyricism. Many of the songs here are chock-full of folksy, old-timey tales of years gone by – so much so that the music would be hard to place in a particular time if it weren’t for its immaculate modern production.
Chock-full of folksy, old-timey tales of years gone by – so much so that the music would be hard to place in a particular time if it weren’t for its immaculate modern production
The first track released from the album, ‘Sapokanikan’, remains one of the songs of the year, and an album highlight. It also contains some of Newsom’s most obscure lyrics yet: the opening two lines rhyme ‘Ozymandian’ with ‘Sapokanikan’; surely a rhyme that has never once been made before and likely never will be again. Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming music video is an excellent companion to the track, too. ‘Leaving the City’ is the most energetic song on the LP – it starts off typically serene, before electric guitars kick in and Newsom lets loose with an intense stream of consciousness. Her vocals here are as urgent as they’ve ever sounded, and it’s one of the best moments on the record. On, ‘The Things I Say’, Newsom channels Joni Mitchell, and comes up with some of her greatest and most affecting lyrics to date: “Our lives come easy and our lives come hard/And we carry them like a pack of cards/Some we don’t use but we don’t discard/But keep for a rainy day.”
There’s much variety to be had on Divers, too. ‘Goose Eggs’ employs a harpsichord, giving the track a baroque feel, ‘Same Old Man’ is a cover of a traditional folk song, and ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightbourne’ concerns itself with a group of time-travelling sailors. Closer ‘Time, As a Symptom’ elegantly if somewhat perplexingly sums up the album’s themes: “Love is not a symptom of time / Time is a symptom of love”. The track, complete with owl sounds (because why not?), builds to a wonderful crescendo with strings galore and frantic double-tracked vocals that grow ever more passionate – it’s a fitting close to such an ambitious album.
It cannot be stated enough that Divers is a beautiful album. The music, a diverse (no pun intended) mix of harp, piano, strings and guitars is rarely anything short of mesmerising. Newsom’s exquisite lyrics and powerful vocals only complete the package. With Divers, Newsom has produced her most concise and direct suite of songs yet, and I truly hope it receives the attention it deserves. It’s an album totally unlike any other released this year, and undoubtedly among the year’s best.