joanna-newsom

Conventionality has never been one of Joanna Newsom’s watchwords. Her last record, ‘Have One On Me’, was a triple-album song cycle and ‘Ys’, before that, was split into just five epic fairytales for the harp, the longest of which lasted 17 minutes. With that in mind, Newsom’s fourth is, at first glance, something of a surprise: ‘Divers’ is a single LP containing eleven songs, all around the five-minute mark, and preceding its release there was a lead YouTube single showing nothing more eccentric than the singer wandering around New York.

Even ‘Divers’’ opening song starts with the most traditional of cadences, and for a brief moment there’s a hint that the last five years of Newsom’s life, which has taken in acting, modelling and latterly marriage, might have mellowed her idiosyncrasies. Thankfully, however, they haven’t, and ‘Anecdotes’ quickly blooms from an elegant wartime lullaby to something far more satisfyingly knotty: Newsom introduces characters, converses with an obscure species of forest bird about the nature of remembrance, and underpins it with a handful of deliciously moreish five-note melodies as sumptuously arranged as they are compositionally simple.

And from there, ‘Divers’ barely lets up, intellectually, musically and emotionally. Over the next 50 minutes, Newsom presents a series of songs as complex, delicate and intertwined as she’s ever written: ‘Sapokanikan’ cites Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ to frame its story of native Americans who inhabited Manhattan island before the Europeans arrived, ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ is a terrifically catchy sea shanty that mixes, improbably, a historical voyage with the theory of relativity, and the title track is a devastatingly beautiful ballad where diving for pearls is an allegory for tragically unrequited love. Likewise, as with her lyrics, the music and playing here is unapologetically bravura – it stands up favourably to scrutiny (but by no means requires it for maximum enjoyment) and the arrangements are intricate but approachable, if occasionally a touch too rococo in places.

On one level, ‘Divers’’ formal purity and academic ambition could seem flashy – it’s certainly frequently dazzling, and this is definitely a record that would not be harmed by being packaged with both an encyclopaedia and a dictionary. But, perhaps aware of this danger, Newsom ensures her manner is never supercilious or alienating. On the contrary, she remains almost unendingly welcoming: across the breadth of the record her confidence, conviction and tenderness becomes an open invitation to enter her all-engulfing world of intricate romanticism and strangely sad, heroic music, and that warmth is ‘Divers’’ trump card.

It helps, too, that the relatively traditional album form used here is an ideal foil for the density of the content. To some, that might be a shame – it means ‘Divers’ lacks the towering element of its two predecessors in terms of dimensions and distinctiveness. Then again, just as with ‘Carrie & Lowell’ by Sufjan Stevens – another musician who seems to be operating on a different plane entirely to the rest of the pack – the stripping away of self-imposed structural grandness has the seductive effect of focussing the awe on the visceral feel of the songs rather than the feat of musical engineering. And that’s what lingers from ‘Divers’ the most: for all its bewitching scholarly accomplishment, this is a wonderfully natural-feeling album, whose heart has even more to offer than its thrillingly skilful head. 

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