Joanna Newsom has never been one to let a complex metaphor go unused, or to let a packed parable go to waste. But her newest album, Divers, might be her most focused attempt yet to get to the bottom of a single subject. Newsom spends the majority of the album grasping at the idea of life, death and the passage of time. You know, the small stuff. But Newsom’s lyrical bent has always tended toward a certain poetic obfuscation, and on Divers she finds a multitude of far-reaching ways to explore the subject. On “Leaving the City, she sings, “And that is all I want here/to draw my gaunt spirit to bow/beneath what I am allowed.” It’s a beautifully succinct way to get at the notion of a life fully lived. And without abandoning her trademark harp, Newsom ventures to see what else she is allowed musically, with the addition of a low, honking synth line which appears and disappears throughout the song.
Elsewhere on the album, Newsom wrestles with notions of life and death in a more historical context. On “Sapokanikan” she namedrops Percy Shelley’s King Ozymandian, and a figure in an Arthur Streeton painting, and an old mayor of New York, and an Indian chief named Tamanend who was instrumental in peaceful Indian/Puritan settler relations, just to get started. Newsom uses the song to play with the notion of who gets remembered and why. The subject also seems to get her more worked up than anything else on the album. Near the end of the song she is almost shouting, or at least as close as she can get with her high warble.
Newsom finds plenty of other clever and dense ways throughout Divers to play with the idea of time. She throws in a traditional folk song, “Same Old Man” and even pens a number about a futuristic sci-fi war in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne.” But perhaps the most interesting comment on time’s malleability and it’s compacting nature, is in the sound itself. Divers is a fair overview of the sound of Newsom’s entire catalogue. There is harp (and harpsichord) and piano. There is a wavering saw. There are multi-tracked vocals and soaring strings. Long, meandering songs and shorter, poppier ones. In effect, a little bit of everything she has done before. Although that’s not to say she doesn’t try out a few new tricks. The backwards looping of her voice to finish off the plaintive piano ballad “The Things I Say” is a strange and wonderful accompaniment to the saw that precedes it. The album, with its occasional straightforward drums, might also be her most rocking effort to date. But for all its complex orchestration and lyrical experimentation, Newsom can still wow with simplicity. Title track “Divers” is the album’s most modest track and its most beautiful. Still full of dense, mysterious language, it also manages to be the easiest to follow story-wise, with perfectly light accompaniment from harp, piano, and a few other soft sounds.
Newsom is never going to make easy pop music for the masses. But on Divers, she has managed a wonderful mix of the eclectic and gorgeous that could be mistaken for no one else.