Joanna Newsom - Divers

by Justin Pearson Rating:8 Release Date:2015-10-23

Joanna Newsom is one of those artists that people either appreciate or they don't. This is understandable though, seeing that she's an indie pop artist whose primary instrument is the harp. Not only is her voice utterly unique among her predecessors and contemporaries - full of quirk that can be grating to some and gratifying to others - her compositions are contextually nuanced, flirting at times with folk, classical, jazz, baroque and the avant-garde. Her lyrics are poetic, literary, and often times cryptic. She makes intelligent music that essentially eliminates outsiders or the casual listener by demanding concentration over passivity.

Newsom's of another world, her own world. Like a captured fairy weaving spells in a glass house, her music is only penetrable to a certain point. We can clearly see her, but can't quite break through the surface to reach her and can only fall under her spell if we allow it. This is what makes her music so special, and something we want to preserve. She's not about to win over a mass legion of fans with her latest album Divers, but it's sure to please those who are sensitive to her charm.

Nature seems to be a thread that colors most of her music. Underneath the complexities of the song structures lies a simple, elemental, almost medieval sense. 'Anecdotes' opens with what sounds like a loon calling across the water as flute and piano make way for an oboe along with Newsom's magical harp. An owl's hoot and a bird chirping ground 'Time, As A Symptom' as something real, immediate. It's not only concerned with the tangible nature around us, but the bigger things that surround us and live inside us - time and space and love: "Love is not a symptom of time/ Time is just a symptom of love." These lyrics seem apt, especially in light of a recent quote of hers from a Rolling Stone interview regarding some of the album's concerns: "...the question of what's available to us as part of the human experience that isn't subject to the sovereignty of time."

The first half of the album is a good example of what happens when collaborating musicians become involved. 'Goose Eggs' opens with a wurlitzer and harpsichord while 'Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne' uses piano, accordian and violin as the lush instrumentation that serves as a backdrop for the song's themes of ghostly soldiers and war.

The second half of the album is where the real magic happens, though. Title track 'Divers' is a reminder of Newsom's strength not only as a harpist, but a singer/songwriter. Her voice can go from childish/playful to commanding and vice versa, sometimes within the same run/verse. It's as if her voice is tightly strung to the emotional heft of the song she's singing. Slightly reminiscent of the confessional, lovelorn style of Laura Nyro, her unconventional melodies seep under your skin, deepening with each listen while you try to absorb the words and their meaning. Mythic in scope yet intimate in feeling, 'Divers' deals with the reality of love in the face of mortality: "Tell me, why is the pain of birth/ lighter borne than the pain of death?/ I ain't saying that I loved you first/ but I loved you best."

'You Will Not Take My Heart Alive's' chorus is repetitive, insistent. It reinforces the adamance of the song's title as she sings the line over and over again. When the lightly intruding, ghostly synth makes its appearance it sounds almost other-dimensional, yet strangely comforting.

Probably one of her most technically simple compositions and most powerful in terms of execution is album highlight 'A Pin-Light Bent.' Its strength hinges on a simple, alternating  two-note harp pluck that seems delicate on the surface while hiding an ominous pulse underneath. Instead of collapsing in on itself which it seems wont to do, it suddenly lurches upward along with Newsom's wailing, hypnotic vocal swell that stuns with a controlled precision.

Divers captivates in the way that a fairytale does. Its songs can be seen as chapters that pull you into the larger world of the book that Newsom creates with an ink that's been dipped into a well of both deep thought and imagination. Whether you fully understand them or not the first time through is beside the point - exploration is the key thing here. It's a land that's unfamiliar, maybe even a little scary at times, but where only good things happen. Once you're grounded in reality again, the landscape around you is that much richer coming fresh from the experience.

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