Joanna Newsom Returns with ‘Divers’
Matt McMahon | Thursday, October 29, 2015
On its surface the album cover to Joanna Newsom’s latest LP “Divers” is deceptively simple. It lacks any semblance of her appearance, unlike all of her previous three elaborate, genre-influenced album covers, and instead depicts a colorful, flowery riverbank, or possibly a mountain cliff. Still, the fog that dominates the middle third of the image complicates an otherwise straightforward picture; it is wholly unclear what lies behind the thick clouds that fall over the majority of the cover’s scenery.
Much in the same vein as their covers, the music to Newsom’s albums exhibits a similar relation. Foregoing the intricate syncopation and polyrhythms of 2004’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” the epic folk tales of 2006’s “Ys,” and the sprawling triple-LP length of 2010’s “Have One On Me,” “Divers” neatly floats by on its 52-minute, 11 normal-length tracks. As each song passes it’s easy to take for granted their delicate beauty and prescribe them just as such. But, like the album’s foggy cover, Newsom’s dense lyrical content and intricately choreographed instrumentation complicate “Divers’” vast musical landscape.
In recent interviews, Newsom detailed the complex making of the album, giving small insights into the five-year process — the longest period she has taken in between albums in her career. For The Fader, the singer-songwriter described a chart she used to write “Leaving the City,” the album’s most single-like track. The song’s chorus, which shifts it from quiet, harp-led chamber music to a roaring, drum-backed tour de force, required interior rhymes to emphasize the downbeat, counterpoint syllabic emphases and exterior rhymes to anchor each individual line. Somehow Newsom pulls all of this off, her soaring lyrics effortlessly climaxing atop lush horns, dancing strings, shimmering keys and bursting drums.
Often, Newsom shows a verbal command and lyrical prowess akin to an unlikely point of comparison, rapper Kendrick Lamar — which is not as surprising after reading she prefers contemporary rap to indie music, currently. In the first verse of the waltzy “Sapokanikan” alone, she juggles varied rhyme schemes (“The cause is Ozymandian / The map of Sapokanikan”) with alliteration (“Is sanded and beveled / The land lone and leveled”), while playing with her lines’ syllables for rhythmic effects. Meanwhile, each individual instrumental contribution is meticulously composed and keenly placed, all serving an equally important purpose in the grand scheme of the album. What on the surface appears to be her most straightforward work reveals in close listen to be one of her most carefully constructed.
On the first few listens, like on Newsom’s previous works, bits and pieces of her lyrics rise to the surface. It’s all that can hope to be made out of her dense poetics without the benefit of familiarity and close, repeated scrutiny of a lyric sheet. As a result, beautiful sententiae like “Time is just a symptom of love,” coming from album closer “Time, As a Symptom,” must be ascribed a more personal meaning by the listener, who latches on to them like lifesavers in stormy waters in hopes not to drown. At the same time, these short lines provide clues to larger narratives meticulously weaved by Newsom. The two possibly diverging concepts coalesce by Newsom’s ability to tell ornate, intimate stories while implanting universally affecting sayings throughout, ones that can — and often do — also exist entirely on their own.
The most immediate of these comes about three-quarters through the album. Newsom repeats the mantra, “You will not take my heart alive,” during the song of the same name, and at first it sounds like a battle cry shielding herself from would-be romantic suitors. However, in the context of her general explanations of the album’s running concepts, it morphs into an idea surmised as, “If I fall for you, only death will do us apart.”
Joanna Newsom has stated that the album is thematically about the concept of time, especially considering the way it transforms as a result of dedicating all that you have of it to another person. Another line that pops out ahead of its peers is the repeated “Time is taller than Space is wide,” from the sci-fi storytelling on “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne.” While scientifically incorrect, the futuristic adage speaks to the spiritual importance the vastness of time has over the physically larger space with which it exists. No matter how expansive space continues to become, the passage of time guarantees that ideas, feelings, emotions will repeat themselves. With “Divers,” Newsom compiles these concepts into a unified piece of work, as relevant to hundreds-year old Lenape villages and World War II infantry divisions as to contemporary lovelorn listeners and futuristic time-traveling colonies.