Divers

Divers

by Joanna Newsom
     
 

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If music is a time machine, able to transport listeners to different places and eras as well as deep into memories, then Joanna Newsom steers Divers as deftly as Jules Verne. She flits to and from 18th century chamber music, 19th century American folk music, '70s singer/songwriter pop, and other sounds and eras with the lightness of a bird, one of the main

Overview

If music is a time machine, able to transport listeners to different places and eras as well as deep into memories, then Joanna Newsom steers Divers as deftly as Jules Verne. She flits to and from 18th century chamber music, 19th century American folk music, '70s singer/songwriter pop, and other sounds and eras with the lightness of a bird, one of the main motifs of her fourth full-length. Her on-the-wing approach is a perfect fit for Divers' themes: Newsom explores "the question of what's available to us as part of the human experience that isn't subject to the sovereignty of time," as she described it in a Rolling Stone interview. It's a huge subject, and even though she worked with several different arrangers -- including Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth and Nico Muhly -- she crystallizes Have One on Me's triple-album ambition into 11 urgent songs that still allow her plenty of variety. "Leaving the City," with its linear beat and electric guitar, is the closest she's come to an actual rock song; "You Will Not Take My Heart Alive" could pass for medieval music, despite its mention of "capillaries glowing with cars." While Divers is musically dense, it may be even more packed with ideas and vivid imagery; its lyrics sheet reads like a libretto (and is a necessary reference while listening). The bird calls that bookend the album -- and the way its final word ("trans-") flows into its first ("sending") -- hint at the album's looping, eternal yet fleeting nature, while "Anecdotes" introduces how each track feels like a microcosm (or parallel universe) dealing with war, love, and loss in slightly different ways. "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne," in which time-traveling soldiers end up fighting their own ghosts, highlights Divers' sci-fi undercurrent, which is all the more intriguing paired with its largely acoustic sounds. Newsom combines these contrasts between theatricality and intimacy, and city and country, splendidly on "Sapokanikan," named for the Native American settlement located where Greenwich Village stands. As she layers the ghosts and memories of old Dutch masters, potter's fields, Tammany Hall, and allusions to Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias, the music nods to ragtime and other vintage American styles; it could be overwhelming if she didn't return to the simple, poignant refrain: "Do you love me? Will you remember?" Indeed, despite its literacy and embellishments, Newsom's music is never just an academic exercise. The album's emotional power grows as it unfolds: "Divers" itself reaches deep, bringing the album's longing to the surface. "A Pin-Light Bent" finds Newsom accepting that time is indeed finite with a quiet, riveting intensity, building to the majestic finale "Time, As a Symptom," where the personal, historical, and cosmic experiences of time she's pondered seem to unite as she realizes, "Time is just a symptom of love." Newsom can make her audience work almost as hard as she does, but the rewards are worth it: Dazzling, profound, and affecting, Divers' explorations of time only grow richer the more time listeners spend with them.

Editorial Reviews

Mojo - Mark Paytress
Freak Folk Cinderella follows acclaimed 2010 triple with an album of erudite pop and deepening moods.

Divers is Newsom’s fourth album, and her first since 2010’s Have One On Me, the acclaimed three-disc song cycle that saw a dramatic shift in her fortunes. On August 10, a video for a new song, Sapokanikan, was uploaded online. Divers was imminent.

Sapokanikan is high-grade Pulitzer pop. Taking its title from a Native American settlement on which Greenwich Village now stands, its lyric actually belies the vaguely ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ feel. The very first line (“The cause is Ozymandian”) reawakens Shelley’s 1818 sonnet on the impermanency of empires; its conclusion, “The city is gone/Look, and despair”, a cheerless first indication of the strong current of melancholia that runs through the album.

Something has changed. For the first time, the narrator is not Newsom in character (Deco vamp, mediaeval alchemist, Fuzzy-Felt, folkie), but an indefinable, all-seeing force of nature, something spectral, unrestricted by Time. That, and the recurring references to war, is not exactly what the hipsters and adult fairies had been expecting.

In musical terms, the change is far less marked. Those still spellbound by 2006’s Ys will lap up the opening Anecdotes, which has more movable parts than a merry-go-round: orchestral strings, a broken soldier on horseback, harp, clear as a mountain stream (Steve Albini’s back engineering). It’s when everything begins to fan out like a peacock’s tail at the height of the courting season that you’re reminded just why Newsom is a 21st century one-off. After a sunny clarinet and some warning chords, a piano, obviously unhinged, rides the scales like a skateboarder on a pendulum. The whole piece is a triumph of planning precision. If there’s a musical centre of gravity, it’s well hidden.

In this form, no one comes close to Newsom in terms of epic storytelling. But that’s no longer something she seems to want to stretch across an entire album. The one other song that has similar aspirations is the title track. Divers features a coiling, kora-style harp that echoes the diver’s plunge, and multiple moods that take in tormented cries (“Did you know me at all?”) and declamatory affirmations (“This woman is alive!”)

Wrapped around this, the album’s cut-glass emotional core, are a cluster of songs where you can almost hear twigs crackling underfoot. Goose Eggs partners a Fender Rhodes with a harpsichord, tosses in some country rock twang and emerges with something Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart might’ve had a sold hit with around 1970 (though they would have trimmed the lyric in half). Waltz OF The 101st Lightbourne picks up military theme and adds fiddle and squeeze-box. The Things I Say is a solemn vignette that collapses abruptly in a late-‘60s Holy Modal Rounders-style heap. Oddly enough, the old campfire song here, Same Old Man, was covered by the HMRs on their 1964 debut.

On the final song, Time, As A Symptom, Newsom is joined in a “joy-of-life” duet by a mourning dove - at nightfall! - a symbolic alliance with nature and, perhaps, some sort of release from the bondage of a man-made idiocy

Product Details

Release Date:
10/23/2015
Label:
Drag City
UPC:
0781484056126
catalogNumber:
561
Rank:
11804

Related Subjects

Tracks

Album Credits

Performance Credits

Joanna Newsom   Primary Artist,Organ,Guitar,Piano,Celeste,Clavichord,Harp,Vocals,Mellotron,fender rhodes,Wurlitzer,Electric Harpsichord,Marxophone,Mini Moog,Juno
Kevin Barker   Banjo,Electric Guitar
Dan Cantrell   Keyboards,Hammond Organ,Piano-Accordion,Saw,Hammond B3
Ryan Francesconi   Bouzouki,Guitar,Bass Guitar,Baglama
Neal Morgan   Drums
Rob Moose   Violin
Clarice Jensen   Cello
Pete Newsom   Drums
Nadia Sirota   Viola
Matt Szemela   Violin
Hideaki Aomori   Clarinet,Bass Clarinet
Andy Strain   Trombone
Logan Coale   Double Bass
James Austin Smith   Horn
City of Prague Orchestra   Performing Ensemble
David Nelson   Trombone
Ben Russell   Violin

Technical Credits

Steve Albini   Engineer
Myles Boisen   Engineer
Adam Muñoz   Engineer
Kevin Barker   Arranger
Jan Holzner   Engineer
Dan Cantrell   Arranger
Dave Longstreth   Arranger
Ryan Francesconi   Arranger,Engineer
Noah Georgeson   Arranger,Producer,Engineer
Joanna Newsom   Arranger,Producer
Neal Morgan   Arranger,Engineer
Justin Rice   Engineer
Nico Muhly   Arranger
Pete Newsom   Drum Arrangements
Judith Linsenberg   Engineer
Sadaharu Yagi   Engineer
Andy Strain   Engineer
Samur Khouja   Engineer
Fritz Myers   Engineer
Michael Harris   Engineer
Tim Green   Engineer
Maxwell Noon   Engineer

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