Review Summary: Stand brave life-liver.
Listening to Joanna Newsom’s latest album, Divers
, the only thing more puzzling than trying to wrap your mind around her labyrinthine lyrics is trying to pen your own thoughts about them. Allegorical to the utmost degree and saturated with verbal extravagance, a dip in focus and a missed line or two will potentially leave the narrative totally lost on you. As a listener, it’s relieving to have Newsom underline the concept behind “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” herself, but it’s also daunting for another reason. As she puts it, the song is about “colonising time sideways, front and back, travelling in four directions” and it’s “linked to mortality and the idea of getting older”. Armed with this insight, lines like “And a new sort of co-ordinate awoke / Making time just another poor tenant” begin to make sense, but I also begin to doubt my ability to comprehend her.
As I listen to this album over and over again, I wonder just how much of Newsom’s poetic brilliance is sweeping over my head. My attempts to understand her roundabout way of conveying what is a very straightforward sentiment feel futile without clarification from a third-party, but still I try. At heart, Divers
appears little more than an emotional outlet, a way of her coming to terms with the apparently undeviating nature of time and the certainty of death. Opener “Anecdotes” is a war-themed tune that is as delicate as it harrowing. It outlines the apparent triviality of our experiences within the grand scheme of time, and doubles as a statement about the inanity of war. Newsom equates our experiences – or, more specifically, those of soldiers likened to the illusive nightjar – to the morning dew that inevitably evaporates. The soldiers’ tales are only to be replaced by more stories destined to be forgotten as well. The line, “I want to go where the dew won’t dry” is sung as though each anecdote should to be preserved, to be heard. As it dawns upon her that she is asking the impossible, Newsom finishes the song on a rather pessimistic note: “You will not hear my parting song / Nor is there cause for grieving / Nor is there cause for carrying on”.
The subject matter of Divers
is fraught with doubt, destitution, cynicism and regret. This creates an interesting dichotomy when combined with instrumentation that, while sometimes sombre and sometimes gloomy, is frequently uplifting and – in typical Joanna Newsom style – reminiscent of something fantastical. “Sapokanikan” decries mankind’s willingness to destroy and neglect the history of others in the process of forging its own, all while under the erroneous presumption that the latter will somehow be permanent. As she puts it, “The text will not yield, nor will x-rays reveal / With any fluorescence / Where the hand of the master begins and ends”. The liveliness with which these lines are delivered means that their relevance the song’s theme can fail to occur to you. While I can’t say for certain, perhaps that’s the point? The marching drums and uplifting, whimsical keys distract you from what is actually important, and in a way this is a reflection of humanity’s contentment to live in ignorance. Once again, it’s not until the song’s end that the enormity of said theme is realised; shifting from jovial to remorseful in what seems like a heartbeat, Newsom’s grief-stricken line, “look and despair”, compounds what was already a heart-rending send off.
Though many of the tracks on Divers
are comprised of these incredibly lush arrangements dripping with supplementary instrumentation – including, but not limited to harpsichords, accordions, banjos, pan flutes, synthesisers and violins – there are exceptions. “The Things I Say” and “Same old Man” are both charming two-minute ditties, consisting of little more than vocals and solitary lines of piano, in the case of the former, and Newsom’s trademark harp for the latter. The title track is sandwiched between these two numbers and appears to merge their aesthetic characteristics together, despite comfortably trumping them in terms of compositional and lyrical intricacy, as well as in duration. “Leaving The City” on the other hand, is the complete reverse. It alternates between subdued verses and upbeat, “rocking” choruses in a poppy yet surprisingly rewarding way. Underpinned by punchy drumming courtesy of Newsom’s brother, Peter, it’s made complete by the sound of a mellotron flattering the electric guitar by way of imitation. It lends the song a vibe quite unlike anything I’ve heard from her before, yet it fits; and this dexterous juggling of styles across Divers
means there is seldom a dull moment until the breathtaking finale.
Well, “finale” is a bit of a misnomer for more than one reason. The penultimate track, “A Pin-Light Bent”, feels like a match-made precursor to “Time, As a Symptom”, each unable to exist without one another and representing a tone shift from prior cuts. The orchestral crescendos of the latter, working in tandem with her gossamer vocals, require a heart of stone not to be moved by – not least because of the pensiveness of what precedes it. Both songs also feature Newsom’s often polarising vocals at their absolute best. Her usual squeaks, pips, cracks and quirky inflections are absent, supplanted by ever so delicate crooning that contrasts with her soaring falsetto. Lyrically, “Time, As a Symptom” binds the album’s themes into a cohesive whole, traversing the unbroken cycle of time that Newsom alluded to throughout Divers
’s running. Of all the songs thus far, it leaves the least to interpretation, wearing its heart on its sleeve and rather bluntly addressing the questions left unanswered from before.
“Why is the pain of birth lighter borne than the pain of death?” is a question from Divers
’ title track that might seem intuitively simple, but how the catharsis of birth and death oppose one another struck me as beyond a mere sentence or two. It pains me to say, “I was wrong”. “When cruel birth debases, we forget / When cruel death debases, we believe it erases all the rest that precedes” is an answer that is as succinct as it is poignant. Death does not represent the end for Newsom as it does for all too many of us, it is just a symptom time. The same cannot be said of love. So she says, “Love is not a symptom of time / Time is just a symptom of love”. Though immeasurable and immaterial, love is as real the passing of time, seeming to hasten as the cold hand of death approaches, after which, expressions of love cease to be. What can be gleaned from this is that while the passing of time and the pain of death is inevitable, the love we feel is eternal and cannot be extinguished by either, hence why time, as a symptom (of love) “moves both ways”.
Long after our corporeal forms have vanished, “every little gust that chances through will dance in the dust of me and you”, just as it will in the dust of our soldiers we chanced upon at the beginning. Though monuments to their sacrifices may have decayed and their anecdotes faded from memory, Newsom calls upon the illusive nightjar in a last gasp. Imploring him to “transcend”, her voice is plucked away amid the word’s fourth and final utterance. The song and album is left hinging upon an unresolved “trans-”, before the journey begins anew with each successive listen: “-sending the first scouts over”. For this reason, more than any other, the “Time, As a Symptom’s” status as a “finale” is deceptive – at least from the perspective of this listener. The entire album is a never-ending cycle, an embodiment of Newsom’s own personal interpretation of the nature of time, as well as vestige of her lived experiences. However, like an age-old scripture, what is intended to be literal and what is draped in metaphor is – perhaps purposely – left unclear. The real take away is the profundity of its message and its applicability to life itself, not necessarily in a prescriptive way, but more so in how you can alter your perceptions of both grief and joy for the better.
It is rare that I dedicate such an amount of time dissecting an album’s lyrics and themes, but Divers
merits no less. This isn’t to diminish the album’s composition and instrumentation, as one could ignore Newsom’s words and still come away enthralled. However, Divers
is as holistic a piece of work as I’ve ever come across, as without its poetic grandeur or musical richness to compliment the other, what would remain – though brilliant in and of itself – would still be tragically unrealised. It is a once in a blue moon piece of art that masterfully bears the weight of its immense ambitions, asserting itself as one of the greatest albums of the 2010s.