Review | Joanna Newsom brings life to love on the exquisite ‘Divers’

Joanna NewsomDivers


[Drag City]

If you’ve read anything about the post-modern provocateur that is Joanna Newsom you’ll probably know at least one thing; she’s polarising. Music writers love to emphasise the revolutionary fact that an artist could be loved by some and yet not liked by others (stay with me). But what exactly is it about — presumably — the world’s most well-known harpist that makes her just so damned divisive? Is it her rigidly cultured upbringing, her incomparably dense lyricism or is it that cartoonish croon she employs which either sounds angelic or like nails on a never-ending chalkboard depending on how you are so disposed.

Whatever the rationale behind the hostility, Newsom hasn’t helped to dispel the image of the impenetrably erudite curmudgeon that her detractors see in her. When she’s not bashing Spotify or electronic music, she is making her acting debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s demanding noir thriller Inherent Vice. Anderson has also directed subsequent music videos for Newsom and association with the visionary filmmaker makes sense really, considering they’re both artists whose work divides opinion, inspires cultish fan bases and is as deeply uncompromising as it is rewarding. While the director, however, has gotten only more unshakeably abstruse in recent years, with her new album Divers, Newsom appears to have gotten that little bit more approachable. At 52 minutes, 11 songs and not even one track over 10 minutes, this all looks uncharacteristically like, well, an album.

Still, calling something the most accessible Joanna Newsom work is like calling a Nickelback album the easiest to endure; it ain’t saying much. The name Newsom gives to her own fans is telling in its own way; Taylor has her Swiftes, Gaga her Little Monsters but Joanna one ups them both with her ‘Delvers’. The title describes an obsessed people, who don’t just listen to the songstress’ new material, but immerse themselves in it. They are excavators who painstakingly analyse and toil through every abstract lyric and highbrow literary reference to find that ever-illusive Newsomian meaning. Even if the songs off Divers are tighter and more compact than we might be used to, the album still offers yet another deep, deep well of intellectual stimulation and sustenance for any delver.

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Divers is, technically, a love album but Newsom uses her unique perspective on the tricky emotion to cover not so lightweight material like the fragile nature of our own existence, the cruel treatment of an indigenous peoples and even the daunting, all-encompassing power of time itself. So yeah, easily digestible stuff here. Like another 2015 release I Love You, Honeybear, this is an album that documents someone fully floored and left deeply uncertain after falling head over heels for someone else. The now-married Newsom feels no less terrified than the broken-hearted one we saw on Have One On Me. The title and repeated line of ninth track ‘You’ll Never Take My Heart Alive’ says it al. A play on that cliché we hear in run of the mill cop shows, it shows how Newsom holds the source of her unbridled passion and deep affection more sacredly than she does her own wellbeing.

The title track itself reiterates the sense of the sometimes sickening burden of unconditional love. ‘Divers’ is a ballad In the classical sense (think bleak old lad warbling in a pub corner as opposed to bombastic bonnie Tyler), a grand elegiac poem that tells the story of a devoted wife whose husband has a treacherous, life endangering profession. The singer sums up the value of her devotion with some mind bogglingly gorgeous imagery and language: “[He] gave to me a jewel/worth twice this woman’s life (but would cost her less/ than laying at low tide, to see her true love phosphoresce)” The lines depicts a woman who can only foresee her husband’s demise when he is out “in the depth of this arid world, yoking the waves”. Newsom is certainly aware of her own mortality but it’s the knowledge that, one day, the death of her partner will come that haunts her exponentially more.

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The instrumentation on Divers isn’t so much a drastic departure as it is light sprinkling of reinvention. It’s part the same old genteel finger plucking Newsom (harps, banjos) we’ve known but also, as ‘Sapokanikan’ shows, with greater emphasis on percussion and some electronic manipulative tricks like overdubbing. Still though, it’s those vocals and the words she sings that remain as the driving force behind her songs. It’s part of why her voice is such a deal breaker for some because, and I mean this as endearingly as is possible, the woman never shuts up. Newsom may lightly caterwaul throughout these songs, but the voice is also an authoritative guide that directs Divers where she wants it to go as the instruments seem to respond to the words and not the other way around.

It’s “Leaving The City” that stands out the most in this regard. It’s as close as Newsom has ever gotten to “going electric” and in the rhythmic, pseudo chorus she sounds positively commanding amidst the guitars, live drumming and even marxophones. The song speaks of a couple making for life in the country but Newsom still finds plenty of room to talk about the futility of trying to “Seek our name” or “Seek out fame / In our credentials/Trying to master incidentals”. This idea of a the fleeting nature of legacy was seen in the first line of ‘Sapokanikan’ when the singer references a classic Shelly poem which deals with man’s folly and hubris in thinking they can leave a significant mark on the world.

As bleak as it all seems, there is an optimistic edge to Divers. Yes, we are all going to die and no one will remember us long after we’re gone but Newsom reminds us that a love of life and for others is enough to make us forget all that. If that’s enough for her, it should be enough for you. Of course I could be completely wrong about all of that, but that’s Joanna Newsom for you.


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