Music Reviews

Joanna Newsom Divers

(Drag City) Rating - 9/10

What is the place beyond the dawn? Joanna Newsom forces us to ask the question from the first lyrics of her latest and possibly greatest album, Divers. The word “place” implies a spatial plane, perhaps death visualized as an expanse of blackness; it could likewise be a symbolic dawn, a place before the “beginning.” But why are the scouts being “sent over from” it, with that strange choice and ordering of words? The timeline Newsom establishes in these first two lines is opaque and not quite in accordance with how we traditionally think of time or of life and death, if that is indeed what it is.

And time in our camp is moving,” she continues, “as you’d anticipate it to/But what is this sample proving?/Anecdotes cannot say what time may do. The titular line of the song, Anecdotes, is perhaps easier to decode, but it has a double meaning. An anecdote is, of course, a story or incident that a person recalls, but it also refers to a not-entirely reliable record of something long past. The link between the two is rather apparent, and there is little doubt that Newsom, whose lyrics draw heavily on poetry of centuries past and who is exceedingly verbose when she wants to be, is aware of and playing with that ancient meaning. Our own experience of time may not be the most reliable manner of determining how it acts. Neither are records of the past.

Time, how it works, how we experience it, and how it records itself for us are the central themes of Divers. Anecdotes gives us characters (named after birds, in a charactonym that is characteristic of Newsom but once again not without another layer of meaning), a central theme, and questions to be answered later. The following song, Sapokanikan, densely intertwines archaeology with poetry to try to excavate a long-dead city that stood where New York’s Washington Square Park and Meatpacking District now stand. In a crucial pair of lines, impressionist Arthur Streeton is recalled to have inscribed the name of a presumed lover, “Florry Walker,” into his brilliant Spring painting, offering the first possibility of temporal transcendence and a contrast to the Ozymandian outlook to civilizations at large – love, certainly, but Newsom is equally concerned with art’s own ability to create and reconfigure time, and that is her supreme achievement this time around.

If it is not apparent by this point, Divers is not an album that you listen to in the background, or that you listen to once or twice. It is an album to which you devote 52 uninterrupted, attentive minutes, or maybe even 104, or 156, or 208, as the album seems to request. On the first level, Newsom is playing with her themes through a series of relevant vignettes. Goose Eggs offers extended flight metaphors to comment on a couple not united in the decision to move across the country; Waltz of the 101st Lightborne is a sci-fi story taking place after some kind of apocalypse; the seven-minute centerpiece Divers is a tale of unrequited love; and Same Old Man, a traditional song beautifully reworked here, is a bitter remembrance of an abandoned New York City. Much of the material can loosely be termed “love songs,” concerned with the permanence or lack thereof of love and memory.

Whether this makes Divers a “concept album” or not is an argument of semantics more than anything. Like most of the best albums, there is a sense of unity to the songs and importance to their order, and in this case they could all function as snapshots in time that lead to accumulated wisdom, culminating in the undoing of linear time itself. At the same time, however, most of the songs contain an internal logic. The magic here is that the juxtaposition of particular points of view and images from song-to-song create new interpretive possibilities.

Musically, too, these songs differentiate themselves from one another and largely from Newsom’s previous work. It is immediately apparent that Newsom’s upper register is more controlled and classical than ever. Song-by-song, her musical diversity becomes equally impressive. The harp is not the primary instrument on any of the first three songs, for starters, but the Kate Bush vibes on Anecdotes (likely a coincidence related to singing voice and classical piano leanings), dissipate within a song. The marxophone, mellotron and drums of Leaving The City create a fuller sound than Newsom is generally associated with, the playful beginning of Goose Eggs doesn’t have the melody we might expect from her, and the darkness of Divers comes as a surprise. Often times the melodies soar, instruments layer, and Newsom’s voice sustains one turn of phrase after another, but the sparsity of The Things I Say and A Pin-Light Bent are just as memorable.

The former is particularly notable. “Profoundly beautiful” is a phrase often used, and adding adverbs to beautiful in general seems to suggest something hyperbolic, but there is no other phrase that seems quite so appropriate for the song – not because of the sheer breadth or enormity or intensity of its beauty, but because Newsom’s sparse accompaniment lends something profound to her lyrics that would not exist otherwise.

The song begins with a self-defeating alienation and then paints a beautiful image, “when the sky goes pink in Paris, France/do you think of the girl who used to dance/when you’d frame her moving within your hands/saying ‘this, I won’t forget,’” before asking, “What happened to the man you were/when you loved somebody before her?/Did he die?/Or does that man endure somewhere far away?//Our lives come easy and our lives come hard/we carry them like a pack of cards/some we don’t use but we don’t discard?”

It may not look like much on paper, but on a meditative album so concerned with multiplying selves and the experience of time, so hung up on parallels with art and poetry, so full of symbols and allegories, a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. Can one go back to a moment simply with a clear memory of it, The things I Say asks? Do our roads not taken exist elsewhere in the multiverse Divers so convincingly creates from its first lyric? And what of those other roads diverging in the woods? Are we so free to backtrack after we have picked the one less traveled by? Must that choice, Newsom is asking, make all the difference?

The Things I Say ends with a back-masked message saying “somewhere far away.” It is the moment on the album in which time really does reverse. Rather than sounding eerie, though, Newsom’s vocals sound, like everything else she sings on the song, delicate yet thoughtful, and she owes that only to herself, her compositional excellence and her arrangements.

When the listener starts to put pieces together, something that may take multiple listens because, for reasons that gradually reveal their brilliance the clues are not arranged in order. If time is affirmed as something that travels “both ways,” with the seven-minute centerpiece and title track beautifully summarizing the inevitable heartbreak awaiting one opts to experience it linearly, why should the listener be able to merely follow the album and get the answer? Time, As a Symptom, its final song—or perhaps the eleventh song, as Newsom refers to it—plays then begins with the same dove call as Anecdotes and ends with a call to that song’s character Nightjar to transmit the message “transcend” and ends with just the syllable “trans” being spoken. The abrupt cut is completed by the first word, “sending” in Anecdotes.  In an album about the multifaceted experience of time, time does indeed move both ways, forcing the listener to go back to the beginning, “from the place beyond the dawn,” both backward and forward, before and after, as those strangely but deliberately worded opening lines tell us.

This transcendence is enabled, in context of the album’s ostensible time-hopping, war-torn “narrative,” through love. On a structural level, however, the links between love and art highlighted throughout the album provide Divers and Newsom, like Spring and Florry Walker, with immortality, an extended rebuttal to Percy Bysshe Shelley “Ozymandias,” invoked directly on Sapakanikan.

Listening to Divers, once, then again, then again, it becomes increasingly impressive that Newsom, four albums but 7 CDs into her career (Have One On Me is a triple album that exceeds this one in length but maybe not in scope), is continuing to find new ways of making music, both on the micro, song-by-song, and the macro, album level. Like all Newsom’s albums, it is full of beautiful music and lyrics that initially appear enigmatic but are in fact simply dense, but it’s the first one to embed within itself, on various levels, the necessity to continue mining its depths. One who does not is as doomed as the speaker of the eponymous track.