Joanna Newsom’s Divers transmits and transcends

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Ana Erickson, Features Editor

 

Joanna Newsom changed my life. If this review seems unreal in its praise, I apologize for my strong feelings. I’m just being honest.

With that out of the way, I’ll get to Newsom’s latest masterpiece, Divers, which she released Oct. 23. Honestly, I don’t know where to begin.

Newsom has been a standout member of the folk genre for ten years. She first appeared on the indie folk scene as a classically-trained harpist with, in her words, a “classically un-trainable” voice.

Listeners developed a liking for her unconventional voice and impeccable weaving of harp jams and expressive lyrics on her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender.

By the time she picked up a full orchestra for her second album, Ys, her music had transcended what anyone else was putting out at the time.

It’s been five years since Newsom released her last gem of an album, Have One On Me, a triple-wide epic. As those five years dragged on, fans wondered if we’d ever hear from Newsom again.

But the in the morning of Aug. 10, a video for a new song by Newsom, “Sapokanikan,” made the rounds of every music website, along with information about what would be her fourth album.

I cried into my french toast as soon as I saw the announcement: Joanna Newsom was releasing a full album in October. She was going to be back.

And now, she is. Divers is a definitive Newsom album. It has all of the classic components of her work: lyrics worthy of analysis in a literature class, enchanting instrumentation, and Newsom’s unmistakable voice.

It’s pointless to compare her to other musicians for a point of reference, but if I had to say, fans of Bjork, Fiona Apple, or Bob Dylan would likely be interested in her work. She’s just Joanna Newsom, and Divers says so, no less than any of her other work.

Yet, Divers stands out from Newsom’s other albums. It has the shortest runtime of all, at 51 minutes, less than half of Have One On Me, which ran at 124 minutes. Newsom has learned to keep quality over quantity, resulting in an album that may be less imposing to newer listeners.

In fact, Divers might be the perfect Newsom album for new listeners to start with before delving into her older work, or just enjoying her, plain and simple. Newsom’s voice is more on the “trained” side on this album, so listeners can work up to the pure eccentricity on older albums like Milk-Eyed Mender.

The melodies in songs like “Divers” or “The Things I Say” are pretty enough to zone out to, even if you aren’t feeling like performing lyrical analysis. It’s an easy enough album to just throw on. You can get pleasantly lost in Newsom’s images of deep oceans, glittering city skylines and wide-open skies filled with birds.

Whenever you’re ready, the deeper meanings of the songs lie in waiting for you to unearth. The world of Divers is open to every level of listening.

Once you do look into the lyrics, though, they show Newsom’s ability to cut straight to your heart. I won’t list any examples, because what stands out as meaningful to me might not mean anything to you. It’s important to find that for yourself. Divers has immense replay value, though, so you won’t get bored while you’re looking.

Though Newsom’s classic harp skills are present, she’s also picked up a variety of new instruments and blended them throughout Divers–everything from a humble piano to a singing saw is featured at some point. For the album’s finale, “Time, As A Symptom,” she brings in the City of Prauge Philharmonic Orchestra, making for a sweeping finish.

Or is it? The main theme of Divers is the motion of time–how we wish time could move any way other than forward, how memories fade and are replaced with new experiences, how maybe time is more circular than we might think.

A little secret the average listener might not pick up on: the last word in “Time, As A Symptom” is cut off: “White star, white ship–Nightjar, transmit: trans-”, and the first word of the first song on the album, “Anecdotes,” is “sending.”

If played in a circle, we have “transcending,” the perfect word to describe Newsom’s work on Divers. I can honestly say I see the world differently because of her.