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