DIVERS IS JOANNA 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. The hair-raising elements of 2006’s Ys were muted. Joanna Newsom, the freak-folk Cinderella fêted as an uncompromising, Captain Beefheart-like visionary, was now being compared to Joni Mitchell at her subtle, sophisticated best. Since then, Newsom has married leading US actor/comedian Andy Samberg, walked a few red carpets, and taken up residence in a fabulous 1920s-era estate in the Hollywood Hills. Live appearances ground to a halt in 2012. Finally, on August 10, a video for a new song, Sapokanikan, was uploaded online (watch below). 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, a pulse that is only reinforced by the Kim Keever cover art, a mesmerising and unsettling work titled Wildflowers 52i that depicts a picturesque floral landscape threatened by choking smoke and clouds. Inside the booklet, where a Keever painting illustrates each song, the mood is darkened as clouds and mists grow progressively more menacing.
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 Ys will lap up the opening Anecdotes, which has more moveable 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 oneoff. 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 and precision. If there’s a musical centre of gravity, it’s kept well hidden.
In this form, no one comes close to Newsom in terms of epic storytelling
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!”).
There’s a “neat, trim ‘wholeness’” to Divers, Newsom tells MOJO. “[But] trying to explain this album would be like trying to explain why a joke is funny. I could break down the mechanical elements all night long, but I’d never come close to making you laugh.”
Oh, but Divers packs a very good punchline. 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 man-made idiocy.
This is an abridged version of Mark Paytress's review of Divers. For the full version plus a Q&A with Joanna Newsom, order a back issue copy of MOJO November 2015/ #264 now.
Watch the video for Sapokanikan.