‘the music still swoops and soars and gleefully revels in the sheer scale of its own ambition‘ – Hugh McCabe on Joanna Newsom‘s Divers
Halfway through the recent Netflix documentary about Nina Simone one of the interviewees suggests that the key thing that made her so good was her uniqueness: once you have heard Simone you’ll never mistake her for anyone else, nor anyone else for her. It’s something she shares with many of the other greats. We could say the same about Tom Waits, about Bjork, about Dylan, about Kate Bush, about Scott Walker and many others. However, it’s not just a matter of having an unusual voice (though this certainly helps), or even of creating a new and innovative style, it’s also a matter of creating a distinctive aesthetic world – one that you alone have access to, and one that you alone have the wherewithal to explore. These worlds have their own internal logic and entire careers are spent mapping out their parameters. Artists get lost in them, take wrong turns, forget that there are other worlds out there too. Sometimes they discover riches and sometimes they come up with nothing. Sometimes there is gold in those hills and sometimes just barren deserts but either way, unless you have found your own world to explore and are setting out to do just that, then you’re just doing the same shit as everybody else.
Joanna Newsom’s fourth album, Divers, is the latest dispatch from one of the most idiosyncratic, distinctive and enthralling of contemporary musical worlds. Five years on from the sprawling opus that was Have One On Me, after having taken some time out out to do an acting turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, it sees her continuing to mine a rich seam of inspiration that shows no sign of drying up. There are no massive stylistic shifts or developments here and most of the elements of her previous three records are present and correct: there are harps, flutes, violins, guitars, pianos and harpsichords; there are dizzyingly complex arrangements; there are courtly events and arcane affairs, there is love and death; there is time and cosmology. But above all there is the voice. Newsom’s singing is anathema to some, but its mannerisms and stylings have always fit perfectly within this odd world she has discovered, and for exploring this particular terrain it’s a unique and remarkable instrument.
To help make the record she drafted in a host of collaborators to work on the arrangements including Nico Mulhy, Ryan Francesconi and Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors. Whereas the Van Dyke Parks string arrangements sometimes threatened to overpower the songs on her otherwise magnificent 2006 album Ys there are no such problems here. The results are uniformly beautiful but also remarkably coherent given the diversity of the contributors. Divers is also far more compact than its immediate predecessor. Have One On Me was sometimes impossible to digest, too much to take on in one go, but the new album clocks in at around 55 minutes. Amazingly this comparative leanness does not mean that anything has been left behind – the music still swoops and soars and gleefully revels in the sheer scale of its own ambition.
So Divers does not depart significantly from her previous work but rather it intensifies it. There is not a note wasted and not a minute goes by that does not contain more breathtaking music than most of her contemporaries manage across an entire album. More remarkably though, it does this while being simultaneously more involving and immediately accessible than any of her previous records too. Newsom has always had a gift for melody and Divers is positively bulging with hooks – hooks that not only lodge in your head and remind you how wonderful beautiful words beautifully sung can actually be, but also hooks which pack a compelling emotional punch. Almost every song, at some point during its labyrinthine journey of luscious orchestration, subtle key changes and spiralling chord progressions, breaks down into an achingly simple melody where Newsom sings something that almost kills you. In the stunning opener Anecdotes, a song that cements Divers as a modern classic within its first five minutes, it’s the conclusion where she ruefully admits that “you will not mark my leaving”. Elsewhere it’s the plaintive refrain of the chorus of You Will Never Take My Heart Alive or the ecstatic crescendos of the closing track Time, As A Symptom (“nullifying .. defeating .. negating .. repeating .. joy of life!”). In Sapokanikan it’s the moment where everything breaks down towards the end and she suggests that we can only “look and despair”.
Whereas it is these simple moments that give Divers much of its power, it’s the complexity of the songs, lyrically as well as musically, that provide it with its depths. Sapokanikan is named after a Native American Lenape village that was situated in what is now Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Newsom offers an erratic psychogeography of New York City history, encompassing the obliteration of the Lenape and their King Tamanend, the Dutch burial grounds under Washington Square Park, and the story of the young reformist mayor John Purroy Mitchel. Mitchel died in a plane crash in 1918 and during his brief career attempted to break the power of Tammany Hall, the Irish-American Democrat political machine who were, somewhat ironically perhaps, named after the aforementioned King Tamanend. The song’s many references to Shelley’s poem Ozymandias suggest that all these buried layers of the city’s history represent transient and near-forgotten moments, and that our current moment will one day too be buried under the ground, and also become a subject of future speculation.
These themes of loss run right through Divers. In an interview with Uncut magazine Newsom said that much of the inspiration for the album came from her recent marriage, and more specifically the immense fear of loss that this entailed: the realisation that one day death will indeed do them part, and that therefore death and love are inseparable. It’s this context that makes the “you will not mark my leaving” line in Anecdotes so devastating: it’s not just that one partner will at some point lose the other, but more importantly that the remaining one’s leaving will not be marked by the one who has already left. The title track of Divers, which will surely become one of the key songs of her career, deals with this theme of loss from the point of view of a diver’s wife, patiently waiting in vain by the shore for her diver to return from the depths, refusing to move on (“never will I wed”). The protagonist declares that she will “hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life” and “ever hold my breath until I can be the diver’s wife”. Like many of her songs it finds some sort of sustenance in its sadness by admitting that this sadness, like death, is itself a part of life.
There are many such treasures scattered throughout Divers and its eleven songs collectively constitute yet another astonishing report from a distant and strange land. Like all of her records, it will doubtless take time to digest fully, and a few months or even years will be necessary to properly assess where it sits within her slowly evolving body of work. Right now though, it sounds like the best thing she’s ever done.