Review Summary: Spellbinding.
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 Joanna 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 Joanna’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 the 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 triviality of our experiences within the grand scheme of time, and doubles as a statement about the inanity of war. Joanna likens our experiences (or more specifically, those of soldiers whom are depicted as various species of nightjar birds) to the morning dew that inevitably evaporates. The soldiers’ tales are only to be replaced by more stories destined for the same fate – irrelevance. “I want to go where the dew won’t dry” Joanna sings. It’s as if she wishes for each anecdote to be preserved, to be heard, but knowing she is asking the impossible, finishes the song rather pessimistically with “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 vain presumption that the latter will somehow be permanent. “The text will not yield, nor will x-rays reveal / With any fluorescence / Where the hand of the master begins and ends” – Joanna delivers these lines with such exuberance that their value to the song’s theme nearly fails to occur to you. Perhaps that’s the point" The marching drums, uplifting piano lines and 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. The song’s tone shifts from jovial to remorseful, compounded by Joanna’s grief-stricken request, “Look and despair”.
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 Joanna’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 duration. “Leaving The City” on the other hand, is the complete reverse. It alternates between subdued verses and upbeat, “rocking” choruses in a predictable but surprisingly rewarding way. Underpinned by punchy drumming courtesy of Joanna’s brother Peter Newsom, it’s made
by the sound of a mellotron emulating an electric guitar, giving the song a vibe quite unlike anything I’ve heard from her before, yet it fits. The dextrous juggling of styles across Divers
means there is seldom a dull moment until the breathtaking finale.
Well, “finale” is a bit of a misnomer. The penultimate track “A Pin-Light Bent” feels like a deliberate precursor to the closer “Time, As a Symptom”, representing a massive tone shift from previous cuts. Both songs feature Joanna’s often polarising vocals at their absolute best. Her typical squeaks, pips, cracks and quirky inflections are curiously absent, replaced by pensive crooning and soaring falsetto. The orchestral crescendos of the latter which work in tandem with her singing are so achingly beautiful that it is difficult not to be moved by them, resulting in a bona-fide tearjerker. “Time, As a Symptom” ties the album’s thematic constituents into a cohesive whole. “When cruel birth debases, we forget / When cruel death debases / We believe it erases all the rest that precedes” is the answer to a question posed on the title track, “Why is the pain of birth / Lighter borne than the pain of death"” Joanna “ends” the journey by fervently repeating “White star, white ship – Nightjar, transmit: Transcend!” The nightjar obviously refers the narrator’s companion from the opener “Anecdotes” but crucially, Joanna cuts off the final word so all that remains is a suspenseful “trans-”. Upon the inevitable repeat listen, she begins by uttering the word “sending” and the journey begins anew.
Now, bearing in mind all the lyrical sophistication and endless hours that one could dedicate to unearthing Divers
’ topical subtleties, does it stack up as a listening experience as well it does a poetic escapade" Absolutely. Such is the album’s richness and fluidity that one could ignore Joanna’s words and still come away enthralled, which is not a statement to be taken lightly when it concerns a piece of work as involved as this. Whichever way you may choose to approach this album, rest assured that it won’t disappoint. Divers
is one of the quintessential releases of 2015, and will be remembered with unconditional fondness for years to come.