Historically, in interviews, Joanna Newsom has always been a strong proponent of the act of buying a physical piece of music, sitting down, putting it on, living in that album’s world, start to finish, and hopefully repeat. It’s stupid, but with this whole vinyl revival, yeah, I tend to buy the vinyl, but often I either just throw the thing up on my shelf, and forget about it, or I listen once, and I’ll forever just listen to the album through Spotify or through the provided download code.
Divers being Joanna Newsom’s first release in five years (believe me, I counted, waited, checked my watch, scanned music news ever-so-intently for hints of a new album), I participated in an act I haven’t quite become accustomed to in our new digital, music age: I waited for my pre-order, I savored in the gorgeous, meaningful packaging of the album like a book, and listened to the everything, front to back, repeatedly, joyously, without end. It really is so easy to just flip the thing over, and start again. It isn’t hard when the music is this transcendentally good.
How does such a young artist, with such a prolific discography – some of the best music of the millenium – top herself? Time. Five years and change. There was no rush by a label, there was no pressing need to top herself. Only time, and an artist who treats their music like a long, forgotten craft. Those five years included Joanna Newsom not only collaborating with a list of talented guest musicians (Nico Muhly, David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, etc.) but two years in just arrangements, and in co-mastering and co-mixing the album.
Even compared to something as orchestral and ambitious as Ys, the songs of Divers are so varied that catching every musical choice takes multiple listens. We can’t forget that beyond being an accomplished harpist, Joanna Newsom is a multi-instrumentalist and arranger, and doesn’t shy from experimenting – found in some of these songs are clavichords, mellotrons, marxophones, and even the use of an electric guitar on “Leaving The City.”
Thematically, and in it’s brutal, direct, honesty, Divers is her most intimate album yet, dealing with mortality, time, transcendence, and the placement of love in these contexts. Each song has a narrator, who may or may not be an extension of this part of Newsom, but in any case provide a spectrum of feelings, desires, contradictions, observations, and musings that lead the listener on a thoughtful journey of one woman’s feelings on existence.
At times this narrator looks and comments from observation, such as in the early released “Sapokanikan,” and in other times, it is a specific character, like in title track “Divers,” as a woman looks upon her lover, a diver. Tracks such as “Pin-Light Bent,” reminiscent of “Sawdust and Diamonds” from Ys, find Newsom once again solo, on the harp, and without any other backing instrumentation, as she sings “My life came and went/Short flight; free descent; poor flight attendant.”
Where words cannot fill the gaps in the observations of these characters, the instrumentation comes in, naturally, like water. Some of the arrangements on these songs are so terrifyingly emotional to me – they give me such chills, I have to take a step back. Whether the ending distortion of “Things I Say,” the existential and dreadful calling at the end of “Sapokanikan,” or the waterfall-cascading harp plucking of “Divers,” these moments stay ringing in my ears, just as much as any lyric.
The most haunting moments of the album, for me, is the combination of the ghostly “Same Old Man” (a Karen Dalton cover) and “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive.” The latter track walks a line between what could very well be a typical Joanna Newsom track, and the twisted harkening of a nostalgia I’m sure I have never felt. It sounds like the Renaissance, mixed with the soundtrack to a 1970s Rankin/Bass movie shown through distorted, crystal glass.
The album concludes with the ambitious, cinematic track, “Time, As A Sympton.” Hidden within this track is the thesis of the entire album – the final, comforting thoughts on the journey of this artist as she tackles such a dense topic from all angles. In a flurry of mourning doves, and an explosive orchestra, Joanna Newsom calls out, almost military shortwave, and perhaps to her older self, the self at the beginning of the album: “White star – White ship – Nightjar – Transmit: Transcend!”
And from there, I flip the record over, and begin again, to mull over everything said and not said on these tracks. But I know I will always end back up at “Time, A Sympton,” and in that way, I am comforted.
I have a feeling, for years, I will be debating which album side is my favorite. Is it the second side of album one? Is it one, or two, of album two? I find myself switching around, even right now. I don’t even know if I will ever find that groove within such a hauntingly gorgeous album. But what I know is this: there is no other artist like Joanna Newsom.
Her words, her thoughts and her art are hers alone, and I trust her visions, and I trust where she takes me and will take me next.