Review Summary: the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life
By this point, Joanna Newsom shouldn’t even really need an introduction. Whirlwind version: She’s a classically trained harpist and pianist with an unusual but alluring voice, and a deft talent for lyricism that goes nearly (or completely, depending on who you ask) unmatched in modern independent music. And here is her long- (long-, long-, longlonglong-) awaited fourth record, Divers
Newsom has claimed this is her first record that truly approaches a “concept record,” the concept being more a collection of binding themes such as the cruel passage of time, death, transformation, and love in the face of all those things. It stretches all over the continuum of space and time, charting territory in past and future wars; under the currents of the ocean; New York City’s past and present. The album seems to dive (hey!) in and out of linearity, even using an old traditional folk song to represent yet another dusty relic of the past. All in all, this collection of themes comes across well, and the songs on Divers
are uniformly great, filled with lush orchestration, subtle but effective synths (a nice addition to Newsom’s arsenal), and the usual harp and piano.
Actually, the piano sort of steals the show from the harp a little on this record. Newsom has never been one to completely shy away from playing anything but her trusty harp, but here she surrenders to those keys more often than not. Often, the harp and piano appear alongside one another, in a sound that may seem at first to be a little redundant but ends up being highly beautiful. The first track, the expansive and gorgeous “Anecdotes” uses this album’s instrumental pallet exceptionally, and on “Sapokanikan,” the keys Newsom hits have real attitude. After just two songs, it is clear that this slight musical shift has not hurt Newsom’s impeccable songcraft one bit.
The harp takes center stage on the embittered, rocking (a word not often used to describe a Newsom song) third track, “Leaving the City,” whose choruses are probably about as close to rapping as we’ll ever hear Newsom get. Following that is an organ-and-harpsichord song named “Goose Eggs,” which with its unmistakable country lilt may just be the oddest song here, and also one of the best, with its palpable heartache in the chorus (“I could never find my way / to being the kind of friend you seemed to need in me / till the needing had ceased”). And then, of course, she follows with “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” which is basically about time-traveling soldiers who eventually face their own ghosts. Another nearly perfect melody adorns this sci-fi-lite song, capping the first half in suitably weird and beautiful fashion.
But after the astonishing first half, Divers
’ second stretch does have a few minor quibbles. The two shortest tracks, “The Things I Say” and “Same Old Man” (both under three minutes), while fitting within the general themes of the record and sounding quite nice, fail to make much of an impression or propose too strong an argument for their necessity. “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” is almost in similar territory, save for the fantastic vocal climax in the choruses. And the otherwise lovely closer “Time, as a Symptom” ends with a brilliant climax that gets a little muddied by the production, making her lyrics a bit hard to discern.
That said, the second half boasts two amazing songs. The title track, for one, is one of Newsom’s best spun tales, and the melody leaves me hanging on every single word. The dramatic, epic landscape created by the music is a perfect setting for the story of the lyrics, and it features some of her best vocals to date. And the penultimate “A Pin-Light Bent,” the sole harp-and-voice song here, is staggering in its simplicity, its sadness palpable. Those “quibbles” on the second half might even just feel more like quibbles because of the heights of these two songs, and they don’t do much to take away from the album - they only point out where it might have been slightly stronger.
Still, this is a genuinely moving, generous, terrific record, with profoundly intelligent musical arrangements and lyrics. Of course, Newsom’s voice is still an acquired taste, but it seems with every record she learns how to use her voice in a subtly different manner, making it slightly more approachable. Her voice in many spots here is soft and warm where before it might have been a little harsher. I never found her voice off-putting in the first place, but I can see how a newcomer might find this record more accessible than her debut, or Ys
, because despite its lofty overarching concepts, it is her first record since her debut that doesn’t feel like an event
; just a set of very good songs. And if after five and half years of waiting for a new record, “a set of very good songs” is enough, well then hey, she’s doing something right.
Final score: 4.4
Key tracks: Anecdotes, Sapokanikan, Goose Eggs, Divers, A Pin-Light Bent