Wherever Joanna Newsom seems to go, critical acclaim follows. Since 2004, she’s released three loved albums: The Milk-Eyed Mender, Ys and Have One On Me. Coming back from the sprawling, two-hour Have One On Me, she’s settled for a more palatable fifty-minute affair, which just about allows her esoteric and medieval-dragged-into-the-twenty-first-century sound to unfold. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in Newsom’s music – like the album cover it’s lush and colourful and sounds like a snapshot of a forgotten age in music. The diving theme recurs throughout, expanding into an extended metaphor of exploration, whether that’s of new lands (‘Sapokanikan’), oceans (‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’) or self (‘Time, As A Symptom’). It’s Newsom’s most consistent, concise album yet, but that doesn’t come at the cost of paring back what made her original in the first place. Hazy pastoral imagery remains, as does Newsom’s knack for marrying her harp with other instrumentation, such as harpsichord, electric guitar or piano. Even if you dislike her music, she has to be given credit for making the harp cool again. And Divers is definitely a showcase of cool harp.
The first single, ‘Sapokanikan’ was originally perplexing and elongated, but grows and grows. The twinkling piano that begins the song is eventually joined by stop-start drums and bass which leave just as easily as they enter. Newsom said the song was about a place with history building on history, as it changes and evolves. She also references Shelley poems and the ‘boy mayor of New York’, John Mitchel. She makes a history lesson sound beautiful and as the horns enter it becomes clear that Newsom could make herself reading out a recipe sound pretty. The next track, ‘Leaving The City’ works as a comedown from ‘Sapokanikan’, introducing distorted guitars (which shouldn’t really work in conjunction with a harp, but it does) to the mix. There are going to companions to influences, of which I don’t even need to mention for people to make conclusions about, but Divers goes beyond the original ‘freak-folk’ and singer-songwriter tag Newsom was cursed with. ‘Freak-folk’ is simply a way of pushing down creativity because it restricts Newsom and what people may expect of her.
Something like ‘Time, As a Symptom’ shows Newsom at her most intimate and raw. She simplifies her lyrics, bringing her theme back from complex history and nautical references to musing on time and death. She’s never been so doom-focussed, but makes it sound like heaven. As a piano-led track, extra instrumentation swells in the last half of the track in the form of drums, woodwind, strings and brass. It could even have slipped onto Florence and the Machine’s latest album at a push. The addition of her eccentricities pushes the track into something more with the addition of owls hooting and birds chirping. If you think of it like this, as the last track on the album, it shows the transition from night (the end of the album), to day (the beginning of the album) with the signifiers of owls hooting at night to birds chirping to signify the rising sun. Someone even handily pointed out on Genius (I wouldn’t always trust Genius, though this is a clever interpretation) that the last word on ‘Time, As a Symptom’ is ‘trans-‘, trailing off at the end, though ‘Anecdotes’, the first track on Divers, begins with ‘sending’. Trans-scending’, anyone? This would make sense with the owls hooting and birds chirping. The little touches makes Divers the blissful experience that it is.
‘Divers’, the album-title track, is where the instrumentation comes together best and Newsom confronts the theme head-on. She takes on the perspective of the diver’s wife, singing ‘I can’t claim that I loved you first / But I loved you best’. As the longest track on Divers, it’s also the most lyrical and harp-based. She considers the similarities between love, marriage and diving when she sings ‘I’ll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life / and ever hold my breath ’til I may be the diver’s wife’. The pearl, as the diver’s life-force (literally, it provides money to live on) is also the dream partner to marry and live with forever, glistening and almost always out of reach. The imagery that Newsom uses – the women on the pier, ‘ancient boulders sink past the west’ and a connection between two people on distant shores (think Great Gatsby) – is beautiful and painting-worthy. You can almost imagine each song on the album as a series of paintings, one next to each other in the great gallery of Divers.
In comparison to Newsom’s other albums, Divers is no less exploratory with its more sensible length when compared to Have One On Me. In fact, it’s sharper and more concise with what it offers. It’s often beautiful, swells with imagery and extra instrumentation and yet Newsom is always there at the centre of it all with her voice and lyrics. Her vocals, whilst they may not appeal to everyone, wouldn’t belong anywhere else than her brand of music, especially when her famous harp springs into life on songs such as the quiet ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ or ‘Same Old Man’. She can bring classical instruments such as the harpsichord to life on ‘Goose Eggs’ and even bring in the electric guitar on ‘Leaving The City’. Joanna Newsom came into music with her early moniker as a ‘freak-folkist’ on The Milk-Eyed Mender, but as she has shown time and time again, she’s one hell of a songwriter and no-one else is making music of this style this good.
Funnel Recommends: Sapokanikan / Divers / Time, As a Symptom