By Bryan Mack
Joanna Newsom is increasingly looking like a jack-of-all-trades: fashion model, expressive actress and, foremost, singer/songwriter extraordinaire. From Milk-Eyed Mender, her 2004 debut, onward, Newsom has married her virtuosic harp playing and emotive vocals with complex and poetic lyrics. She has steadily grown her audience and sound ever since, adding orchestration from Van Dyke Parks and extended song structures that nodded to Canterbury prog rock and classical music to Ys (2006) and creating her own White Album with the masterful sprawl of Have One on Me. That album, released in 2010, was the last we had heard of Ms. Newsom, who spent the intervening years playing the rare show, scoring a central role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, marrying comic actor Andy Samberg and composing the songs that comprise her fantastic new album, Divers.
Divers begins and ends with the call of a mourning dove, the bird that brought Noah a branch signaling the end of the flood and a return to land. The tracks in between find Newsom diving, both lyrically and musically, into new and unexplored realms. “Anecdotes,” the opening track, is classic Newsom, full of harp trills and complex orchestration, reminiscent of “Only Skin” from Ys in the way it ties together the disparate threads of the album both lyrically and musically. The track starts quiet, just Newsom singing in a high register, her piano and harp slowly joined by a solo horn. It’s not until about two thirds of the way through the track that the synthesizer’s voice clearly separates from the dance of harp, strings, piano and flute. A komische-esque psychedelic waver, it’s a fleeting moment that anticipates more dramatic moments later in the album.
The rest of the album lives up to the powerful introduction. “Sapokanikan,” a complex lyrical riddle about loss and the ravages of history with references to poems by Horace Smith and Percy Shelly, is a striking ballad that builds to a driving and emotional climax. “Leaving the City” begins with a high harp line and ominous vocals that would have fit seamlessly onto Have One on Me. When the mellotron, harp, martial drumming (courtesy of Newsom’s brother Pete) and staccato vocal delivery come together towards the end of the song, I think punk rock more than folk or jazz or psych. There is a drive, an energy that makes the song absolutely thrilling, one of the best she’s ever released. She continues hopping genres as she weaves her complex tales: psychedelic country on “Goose Eggs,” a sea shanty about a troupe of soldiers fighting in a futuristic San Francisco bay area in ruins, and a mesmerizing folk ballad injected with proggy keyboards. “Same Old Man” begins with a sound that nods back to Milk-Eyed Mender, all plucked harp and twangy strings before a bassy synthesizer starts to ride beneath her voice, slotting in seamlessly.
Between the birdcalls and mellotrons, accordion dances and backmasked vocals, this is the most extensively produced and orchestrated album Newsom has released. It is also her most assured, finding her singing with more nuance and power than ever before. The long phrase at the end of “Sapokanikan” should finally hush critics who claim that her voice is too odd or grating: she is in full control as she stretches out the word “gone” with a piercing clarity. She remains virtuosic on the harp, alternating between rhythmic melodies and shredding flurries of notes as deftly as Eddie Van Halen or John Coltrane. Most impressive this go-round is how effortlessly she incorporates new instruments and styles, from the pounding drums, marxophones and intense tempos of “Leaving the City” to the electronic manipulation and backwards vocals of “The Things I Say” to “Same Old Man”’s folky prog. She blends jazz, folk, country, progressive rock, waltzes and piano ballads into a style that is uniquely hers.
Newsom is as unique and virtuosic a lyricist as she is a songwriter. She has always been a complex lyricist, packing her songs with complex internal rhyme schemes, allusions to historical events and other poets, inside jokes and obscure words that even a doctorate of English would have to look up. Here, she winds allusions and references throughout the album. “Sapokanikan” explores the history of Greenwich Village in New York as a metaphor for how time and death eventually erase both history and memory (the line “20,000 attending your footfall” alludes to the mass graves underneath Washington Square Park, and Florry Walker is the name of a mysterious lover hidden in a painting by Arthur Streeton). “Leaving the City” explores how a retreat to natural surroundings will ultimately not shield us from the inevitable (“And the scythe will reap/ and the spirit will rend/ in counting toward the end.”) She accepts that New York will run on just the same whether she is there or not in “Same Old Man.” In recent interviews, Newsom has commented on how marriage led her to explore the theme of death. Or, as she says on the final track, “Love is not a symptom of time/ Time is a symptom of love.” Once we realize the enormity of love, it can remind us of our own mortality. Love and death have long been intertwined in Newsom’s work (“Cosmia” focuses on the loss of a loved one and the question of what comes after, while Have One on Me is an album-length exploration of the end of a relationship and the death of the possibilities that lived within it) but she has never so explicitly explored the relationship between the two as she does on Divers. Thankfully, the album ends with the mourning dove’s doleful song of hope and Ms. Newsom extoling the joy of life, suggesting that, though death is inevitable, love and hope are still possible.Divers, Joanna Newsom