Joanna Newsom ploughs such a lonely furrow in the contemporary music scene and is held in such high esteem for doing so, that it is in some ways difficult to be critical of her. Her last album, Have One on Me – a sprawling triple album, full of songs over the seven-minute mark – received such a rapturous reception that her new album could conceivably be an absolute dud and still be assured of glowing reviews. Fortunately, Divers is anything but. Rather, this beautifully crafted collection of story-infused songs is one of the finest records of 2015.
Five years is a long time in the record industry. A lot can happen, and a lot has happened to Joanna Newsom. She had a role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner potboiler Inherent Vice (Anderson also directed the video promo for the album’s title track), appeared in hipster satire Portlandia, sang a song with the Muppets, and, perhaps most significantly, married comedian Andy Samberg. The big question, of course, is how these changes might have influenced Newsom’s highly unique art? The most obvious change is that, at least by Newsom’s own unwieldy standards, Divers has been edited down to a more manageable consumable level. This doesn’t necessarily mean she is becoming more commercial, just better at what she does.
With its more conventional length and structure (11 songs, only one of which exceeds seven minutes), in terms of her previous work, Divers is closest to in spirit is her debut The Milk Eyed Mender, although there is no single as immediately and intoxicatingly beguiling as ‘Peach Plum Pear’. Yet it is by comparing these two works that you realise how much she has changed. For one, her voice – the deal-breaker for a lot of first-time listeners – has matured and mellowed since that stunning first release, having lost some of the swooping shriek-like quality which made her such a Marmite proposition from the outset; now at the age of 33, she has acknowledged that her voice has changed and matured, she feels for the better.
Yet this is not in any way to say that Newsom has ‘dumbed down’, or that the refinement and focus on Divers should be taken as a simplification of her notoriously complex and arcane vision. Lyrically, Newsom is as hard as ever to penetrate. She uses the work of Joyce, Camus and Hemingway to paint ‘word-pictures’, which come across like remnants from some forgotten archaic language. On single ‘Sapokanikan’ she sings “the records they left are cryptic at best”, a description which could be applied equally to her own arcane poetry.
‘Anecdotes’ is a beautiful track in itself, and highlights the epic quality Steve Albini and Noah Georgeson’s stunning production lends the songs throughout, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Have One On Me, and it is only with the next tracks, ‘Sapokanikan’ and ‘Leaving The City’ that the nature of Newsom’s development as an artist becomes clear. Most conspicuous is the drums and distorted guitar on the latter track, (which make a reappearance in ‘Time as a Symptom’), which sound so jarring on a Joanna Newsom album, though give the song a much fuller background. Like every other vaguely leftfield female singer-songwriter in existence, Newsom has been compared to Kate Bush, yet on this collection of songs the lazy journalistic comparison actually rings true, with the euphoric march of tracks like ‘Leaving the City’ actively recalling the best of Bush’s Dreaming-era work.
Although this a far from perfect record – there are parts that verge on the mawkish and twee (title track Divers even sounds a bit like Christmas favourite Walking In The Air), while sections of the album, particularly its second half, can be slightly leaden, even boring – this is ultimately an album which demands and rewards multiples listens. With so many layers it can get slightly overwhelming, every new listen reveals a new angle. It’s certainly not the commercial ‘sell out’ some had feared, Divers has managed to distil the more forbidding elements of her previous work into a form that most mere mortals can manage. If you’re into music that’s profound and resonant with multiple meanings, and willing to work to get beneath the surface, this album is for you.