Joanna Newsom: Divers

Scott Wallace
23rd Oct 2015

"Our lives come easy and our lives come hard; We carry them like a pack of cards. Some we don't use but we don't discard, but keep for a rainy day,"Joanna Newsom sings on "The Things I Say," a short piece for voice and piano that is one of the stand-outs on Divers, the singer and harpist's latest album. The song is a perfect miniature representation of the whole - unassuming and homespun, but generous in its fullness. 

Listening to Joanna Newsom is like witnessing many lives unfolding - like following her down a hallway of mirrors where each one shows a different reflection. She has worn many garbs, from the wide-eyed folkie of her debut, to the mystic prophetess of the spellbinding follow-up, to art Art Deco princess and unlikely fashion icon. By contrast, Divers seems like the first time we are truly seeing who Joanna Newsom is.

The record picks up a strand of barefooted domesticity that has run through everything she's released. On the 17-minute opus "Only Skin" from her second album Ys, she sang, as if in a moment of clarity, "When I cut your hair and leave the birds all of the trimmin's, I'm the happiest woman among all women." In 2013, she married comedian Andy Samberg, a pairing that seems to influence every word on Divers. Her lyrics are as stuffed with details as ever, tumbling from her as if she can't be stopped, but there is an earthiness and warmth to her music that keeps her usual flightiness in check.

This is most apparent on the single "Leaving the City," where cloudy keyboards murmur their agreement to Newsom's keen-eyed evocation of domestic bliss, as well as the country-tinged "Goose Eggs" with its electric piano and harpsichord. Guitars and keyboards appear more than ever before in Newsom's music, alongside the strings, horns and woodwinds that are more characteristic of her baroque chamber pop leanings. Rather than cluttering the songs, though, these additions serve to delicately and eloquently colour them; coming after Newsom's last album, the enormous three-dic set Have One on MeDivers feels like a much-needed simplification.

But that's not to say that Newsom has sacrificed any of her compositional or lyrical complexity. The album opener "Anecdotes" (a title that could seem like self-parody if it weren't attached to such a lovely song) has distinct, suite-like movements, the addition of strings and horns adding drama and setting the scene for what is to follow. The next track, "Sapokanikan," which was released as the album's first single, can't sit still. The first line contains the word "Ozymandian," in a reference to Percy Shelley, then the song goes on to situate Newsom's love among the sprawling geography and history of New York City, compressing centuries down to single moments of stunning insight.

Newsom is a gifted storyteller, weaving expansive tapestries that reveal more and more detail the closer you look. The album's title track tells a story of lovers separated by the ocean, its many nautical metaphors standing in for trials and traumas of the heart. "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" is a stranger and more idiosyncratic tale, full of dazzling turns-of-phrase and inventive wordplay. It requires a full set of printed lyrics to unpack everything contained here, but understanding Newsom's beguiling poetry is worth the patience. 

Many of the things that make Joanna Newsom's work so impressive also make her a divisive artist. Depending on your outlook, she's either a genius, or an overly-wordy caterwauler. Many colourful euphemisms have been deployed to dismiss her distinctive singing style, but in the context of her busy, neo-traditional creations, that rough, sometimes animalistic, always bewitching voice is a perfect instrument. Divers shows an artist more confident than ever before, but somehow more humble. Breathtaking in its purity and heartfelt in every note, this record is a small miracle. 

Divers is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats. You can see Joanna Newsom at the Sydney Opera House on January 21 as part of the 2016 Sydney Festival.