We’ve all heard of Joanna Newsom. As an indie darling of the highest caliber, she finds herself firmly positioned in the canon of respected and critically lauded modern artists determined by the most visible tastemakers. But play one of her songs for any group of people and you’re likely to encounter a mixture of confusion, annoyance, and awe in their reactions. As an artist who frequently appears on both “Best Voices in Music” and “Most Polarizing Artists” lists, I almost hesitate to mention her polarizing nature because those that feel strongly about her in one way or another will make their opinions known. Loudly. Instead, I include it as a testament to why she is without a doubt one of music’s most singular, compelling, and brilliant voices.
At its core, Newsom’s musical output is defined by exploration and a bold embrace of the unfashionable. I’m sure every young, struggling harpist is well aware that their choice of instrument falls somewhere between the hurdy gurdy and the theremin on an internet “Instruments You’ve Never Seen Someone Play” list. Newsom, however, is unique in her omnivorous embrace of musical instruments (the aforementioned harp is her most famous) and styles, past and present. Whereas many an “eclectic” artist tries to do the same, she so often succeeds due to her choice to ground the work in intricate lyrical and narrative poetry worthy of poring over. Not to mention instrumental parts of similar caliber.
Which brings us to the subject of this review, and the anticipated follow up to 2010’s Have One on Me. Aside from the Newsom calling cards of forward looking lived in song structures and styles as well as her distinctive voice, Divers scans as different from her previous work in important ways. While she has not stopped challenging listeners by following her own incomprehensible muse, this set of songs is much more direct, potent, and catchy than any she has produced before.
It is in a way both shocking and logical that this album would be one that clocks in at just over 50 minutes and has only one song longer than seven minutes long. It is a shock after digesting her sprawling, massive previous work yet logical that she would distill her signature songwriting and lyricism into more digestible (and dare I say conventional) pieces. Her poetry remains perfectly intact within the confines of these songs, with highlights being “Sapokanikan”, an examination of change and displacement through the telling of the history of Manhattan, and “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”, in which Newsom “(contrasts) this British Isles sea shanty with a narrative in which I’m talking about colonizing alternate iterations of the terrestrial position in the multiverse” (in her own words, mind you).
If anyone has doubts or reservations about diving (pun intended) into Joanna Newsom’s music, Divers is an ideal introduction. This is not to minimize the sophistication and beauty of the album, but instead to suggest that it strikes a perfect balance between idiosyncrasy and wider appeal, introspective vignettes and beautiful, powerful melodies. Pardon my gushing, go and give it a listen.