Few career trajectories could have moved with the unpredictability and variety of Joanna Newsom’s. Her fourth studio album, “Divers,” was released this past Friday and marks a new milestone in her career. Currently, Newsom enjoys a quasi-pop star status, featured in films like the 2014 movie adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” as well as a 2012 episode of IFC’s “Portlandia.” While “Divers” is bound to show up on critics’ year-end lists, lauded for its presentation of a modern-day Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush singer-songwriter, this record is a noticeable departure from Newsom’s established repertoire.
The Mills College dropout received classical training on both piano and harp as an adolescent, choosing to abandon her studies in favor of pursuing her music. After signing to Drag City Records, the label responsible for the post-hardcore aggression of Shellac and the elegance of pop group Stereolab, her 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender” bred her a cult following.
Initially, Newsom was associated with the freak folk movement, singing with a quavering vibrato that would make Devendra Banhart nod in approval. Her music displayed a picaresque sense of narrative equal parts fairytale and allegory, lyrically relaying her life on later songs such as “Emily” that could lend themselves to interpretations ranging from J.R.R. Tolkien to Edmund Spenser. While the results of a 2009 surgery on her vocal cords have somewhat removed the vocal comparisons to Banhart and his warbly wisp, Newsom’s voice and multi-leveled storytelling is still front-and-center with “Divers.”
Newsom described “Divers” as a record about observing the passing time and the recognition of the inevitable end of a human life. In a 2013 interview with U.K. rock publication Uncut, she stated that this theme emerged in her life after her marriage to comedian Andy Samberg in the September of that year, noting that the event presented itself as a signifier of age. Following this realization, she told Uncut “the idea of death stops being abstract, because there is someone you can’t bear to lose.” This lyrical motif resonates strongest with “Divers” closer “Time as a Symptom,” on which she sings “Love is not a symptom of time, time is just a symptom of love.” The song achieves its apogee through the lush orchestration of Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth, performed by members of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. This lynchpin forms a base to launch Newsom’s spiraling soprano to the top of her vocal registry.
While lyricism may come as Newsom’s priority, the album’s instrumentals are undoubtedly labors of love as well. Released last August, the album’s first single “Sapokanikan” starts as a jaunty piano rag with Newsom’s voice hovering over it. At its surface-level, Newsom offers accounts of the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelly and the paintings of Tiziano Vecelli. Halfway through the piece, its whimsical mood completely changes. Martial percussion and low brass give way to a bold cadence that the piece’s former half dropped no hints of, as Newsom directly involves herself with the song’s narrative. The rhythm section decrescendos gracefully as Newsom’s voice runs one final lap through a vocal line embellished by a countermelody on flute.
One of Newsom’s greatest strengths as a composer is her ability to fluidly join moods, lyrics, and oftentimes instruments together in places where a successful union may seem unlikely. Her ability to surprise her listeners four albums into her career is the penchant of a musician refusing to be pigeonholed. For example, the title track on “Divers” is a piano ballad that elicits an uncanny Kate Bush comparison both in composition and in Newsom’s singing, but the arpeggiated harp patterns that follow the piano throughout mark this song as unmistakably hers. “Leaving the City” begins by introducing a harp pattern with a sense of rhythm indebted to baroque composers like Scarlatti or de Visee. As the piece progresses, staggered vocal phrases are joined by a brittle electric guitar imitating the melody. The song finishes with the instruments switching roles, as the guitar accompanies a closing harp melody.
At an initial glance, “Divers” does not display the same ambition as Joanna Newsom’s earlier works. It is not the intimidating three-disc megalith of “Have One on Me,” nor does it flaunt the extravagence of “Ys,” an album with the average song time running slightly past 10 minutes each. “Divers” is a lean collection of well-groomed songs with a total runtime of 50 minutes. Regardless, the implementation of baroque musical forms, the nearly-virtuosic harp playing, and the abstruse lyrics that range from sentimental odes to frustrating pleonasms are indicators of a musician challening her listeners as much as she challenges herself. With “Divers,” Joanna Newsom manages to successfully distill her songwriting formula to a palpable single disc in what may be the singer-songwriter album of the year.
Jeffrey Holmes is a fourth-year student majoring in philosophy. They can be reached at JH791223@wcupa.edu