JOANNA NEWSOM – DIVERS
Divers is an album that exists in a loop – an exercise (or observation) on the effects of time, the human propensity to look for an escape, the human struggle that occurs when we cannot find one. The album itself ends with an abrupt stop, the word “transcend” truncated to just its first syllable; but the album opens suddenly with the word “sending” creating a circle worthy of a Nolanesque meditation on the time-space continuum. The album is such in its theme – Newsom’s observations on time, the effects it has on our loved ones are earthly and smothering in their reality. Divers, though leaves you with a dream-like memory of the whole thing – ghosts are invoked in the first track, before a daughter is called awake to tea. The artwork and video for the second single ‘Divers’ adds to this mystique – a meditation on the nature of life and the imminent death of a lover, but as through a mirror, with smoke like clouds and a Neverending Story quality permeating the whole visual.
An album like Divers is one that is intimidating to write about – even more so when the subject of your thoughts is Joanna Newsom, a musician whose very nature and style is difficult to pin down in a few words. Starting her “official” career around 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender, she’s been described in terms such as “nymph” and “pixie” and, thus, through her sprawling epic Ys that description may have read true to a certain extent: Ys, with it’s morbid fairy tales, had more than a little of a Ren Fair tilt, lending to this Manic Literal Pixie Dream Girl narrative. Starting with 2010’s Have One On Me the narrative shifted – both sonically and socially – and the press had to admit that, perhaps, it had been two-dimensionalizing Newsom a bit. “I think what’s changing is that people are slowly understanding that I’m not what they originally assumed I was,” she said, speaking to the Guardian in an interview from the same year as Have One One Me’s release. Speaking of both her opening up to the fashion world, dating Andy Sandberg (married in 2013) and perhaps of her sonic development, Have One On Me saw her delving into what we would describe as a truly American epic – a tale of place (Northern California, in this case) and identity, a modern Romantic musing at times, while still retaining the sprawling lyrical output and poetry that made her so intriguing to begin with.
Divers continues this theme, but has honed it to a sharp edge. Parts of Ys still come out (as with the track “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive”) but much of the album has taken the arrangements and folk/blues/Americana imbued with traditional harp melodies explored in Have One On Me. The title track itself is modern epic – a woman watches a diver from the docks. “And in an infinite regress: Tell me why is the pain of birth lighter born than the pain of depth?” Newsom deftly observes. The narrative seems to stretch out from here, weaving in metaphors of the ocean as a woman wonders about the limits of love, the place of a woman in the world, her relation to her lover – the limits of time itself and the edges existence encroaching on these observations.
If Joanna Newsom was ever described as “innocent and childlike” in demeanor, that persona has been thoroughly shed at this point. Continuing her theme of observing time – standing outside in her observances but also rooted firmly in their effects – the lead single “Sapokanikan” sees her blending poetic influences and crafting a world, disappeared from what we once knew: “Go out, await the hunter to decipher the stone / And what lies under the city is gone / Look and despair!” she tells us, the whole song coming to a heart breaking pinnacle and then is gone again under the waves and mud of time, like the city she is describing. What will we leave behind and who will find it? Does it matter?
Divers itself is truly a masterpiece – every word feels perfectly crafted and not a single note seems excessive. Newsom manages to navigate through myriad influences, explored on her past three albums, while surprising us at various points – for one, the synthesizer noises introduced at the end of “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” adding a distinctively new sound to her familiar jazz structures. In what might perhaps be a good conclusion to the thesis presented in “Divers,” Newsom tells us, “my life, until the time is spent / is a pin-light, bent” on “A Pin-Light, Bent”. A mourning dove coos at the very end of the album – a sad sound, but the sound of nature progressing, and of the world continuing on past what we will have lived to see. Divers is not light, but if you let it pull you into its depths, there are observations to behold that are worth the journey.
12/6/15 Orpheum Theatre Boston MA
12/7/15 Kings Theatre Brooklyn NY
12/9/15 Union Transfer Philadelphia PA
12/10/15 Lincoln Theatre Washington DC
12/12/15 Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall Munhall PA
12/13/15 Asbury Hall @ Babeville Buffalo NY
12/14/15 Queen Elizabeth Theatre Toronto Ontario Canada
12/15/15 Royal Oak Music Theater Royal Oak MI
12/16/15 Chicago Theatre Chicago IL
12/17/15 The Fitzgerald Theater Minneapolis MN
12/18/15 Orpheum Theatre (Madison) Madison WI
OFFICIAL SITE: www.dragcity.com/artists/joanna-newsom