In Divers the listener shares, open-eyed, in Joanna Newsom’s dreamlike world. Where once the ear-bending stories of past Newsom songs were separated from album to album like watching pens writing swiftly and the writer slamming the complete book shut only to open a fresh one with blank pages- because there has to be something novelesque at play in her music- here we are cast straight into her feelings, the personal writings in 2010 masterwork Have One On Me all the way back to the aching folk of her 2004 debut. For those fans engrossed in the saga that is Newsom’s rise towards perpetuity, Divers acts like anything she tends to create- passionately, maddeningly, with a tender heart and a scholarly head. The intimation of watching a master storyteller using one’s voice, hands, and posture is tangible; Newsom’s words are arresting. Many will never understand, more than 10 years since everyone started to piece this ethereal singer together, but still this music makes sense because of its stark truths and how the unpredictability in her voice and arrangements should be taken as important.
As an album released by an esteemed folk artist, Divers may be at the top of a packed category. For maybe the first time ever, though, in regards to Newsom, calling it folk might be a slight misnomer. The most interesting development is the introduction of the electric guitar in a third of these songs (I think her time spent acting in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is too much of a coincidence, considering how integral rock ‘n’ roll was to the ‘70s). The common language between her singular voice and the guitar is the unexpected. “Leaving the City” is where the listener is most clearly introduced to the guitar, its heavy-handedness and sound enriching her flightier tendencies in the chorus. The placement is the representation of the character’s fear of leaving the city, or even the mountainous land mentioned in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” where the time-traveling ghost soldiers transcend time and space, which further couples itself to the opener “Anecdotes,” and that the opener sounds cut from the same cloth as 2006’s Ys makes perfect sense in that one can’t help but draw her sounds and stories into each other. Consider, also, “Sapokanikan,” which brings to mind American mythology, and Newsom’s signature harp does not appear at all, instead replaced by keyboard, synths, and twinkling piano. The military drum beats keep “Sapokanikan” and “Leaving the City” grounded, the harp complements her breaths and phrasing, and the piano adds merrymaking to all of the album’s textures assisted by a host of collaborators, including members of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Newsom is clearly not the first musician to add instruments to deepen her sound, including the dozens of keyboards and synths, but as she grows more mature and masters her form, the move goes off like gangbusters.
On Entertainment Weekly, Newsom talks about Divers being “the most fun I’ve had making a record,” and as one listens to the orchestration being seamlessly interwoven into her music, that feeling makes sense. Like her best songs, the way she decks the arrangements enhances her lyrics, which are needlessly packed on this album, suggesting a restless mind. Birds are chirping when “Anecdotes” begins, where the strings and keyboard flutter and fly like she is dancing amongst a gust of petals and leaves like a force of nature. The drum beats on “Sapokanikan” play into the American mythology it’s discussing with the militaristic sound of the war drums of soldiers as they do battle with the Native Americans, and the wind instrument at the end recalls handmade Native American instruments. The piano in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” brings a welcome jauntiness to Divers, as well as the harmonies at the end. The harp brings an aging beauty to “Divers” as well as simulates waves and the ocean’s depths as a woman declares a love for a man she knows may die. “Same Old Me” is pure folk, complete with banjo. The collaborative efforts have allowed her to highlight her bright spots and amplify her vocals, similar to the power of collaboration in the writing of the first “Star Wars” trilogy. And that voice. Classical, playful, dynamic. Her vocals on every Divers song is striking.
On a philosophical album such as this, filled with symbols, allegories, war images, and love unbound by time, no one but a lyricist like Joanna Newsom could produce it. As is Newsom’s wont, the harp is still her go-to for all the more intimate numbers, and the slightness of “The Things I Say” and “A Pin-Light Bent” are welcome, but on the rest of Divers it’s one of many in a mixture of sounds, with the help of composer Nico Muhly and songwriter Dave Longstreth. Only after subsequent spins do listeners realize what she’s doing- at least, having followed her career up to this point, some of Divers’ seems familiar. Her mastery of every aspect of the song is present in “Anecdotes”, reminiscent of much of Ys, and the title track feels as personal as anything on her debut. She’s filling her world with more than anything she has done before, and much like the rebuilding in “Sapokanikan,” she builds on top of what has been conquered. The familiarity is just a way in. Once she’s entirely hand in hand with the listener, she ruminates on whether or not one can pass through time just from a memory. The question “How are we remembered?” haunts the album. Small moments are pieces of gold and silver to collect. The listener is put in the middle of a battle through Time itself on “Anecdotes,” but she takes a moment at the end to speak of hearth and home, when a parent asks the daughter to join the family for dinner “before the sun is gone.” After she’s surrounded by ruins on “Sapokanikan,” she shifts perspectives across decades to a man unbuckling his belt after a plane lands, and a “desert island” as a place of rest for the soldiers in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” is its finals image. She confesses to knowing her lover’s name in the last seconds of “Divers.” Listeners get some semblance of an answer to why these moments matter, where she boldly jumps into the cosmic.
The accessibility of Newsom’s sympathy-of her characters and melodies- is her admission that she is just as fragile. This sympathy is perfect, because Newsom songs have always felt more loving, like she is an arm length away from giving a hug but her words keep her at a distance. How beautiful, she seems to be telling listeners, to listen to this music until it finds a balance with the earthly and the boundless. In the final track “Time, As A Symptom” the tempo builds with each subsequent verse, bringing everyone to the declaration “Love is not a symptom of time / Time is just a symptom of love,” and the swell of instruments begins for the climactic finale. What she’s suggesting, then, ferociously, is that life is not measured by time but by moments of love, which build into an era. This album is a triumph, and she is so taken with that idea that she cuts her own voice off at “trans-,” as if the song could go on forever, until the first track begins with “sending.” And so it goes.