Joanna Newsom exists in this strange, rarified air in the music world. It’s an atmosphere consisting of one part “I’m supposed to like her to maintain some sort of indie cred,” another part “I don’t like her, but I ‘respect’ her talent,” and yet another part “Everything she touches is gold.” She sits there alongside a few other seminal – yet highly idiosyncratic (and mostly male) – artists: Prince and Bowie come immediately to mind, as does Morrissey. These are musicians who make art completely on their terms and timetable, current conventions and expectations be damned.
I guess this is what happens when you record and write folk music primarily upon a harp, back it up with a small orchestra, and convey your intricate story-songs in a lilting soprano that features no small portion of yodel and yelp at any given juncture. Yet, while Divers, the 2015 release from Drag City, does feature those elements of Newsom’s repertoire, it also doubles down on the Joni Mitchell influences she displayed with deft dexterity on 2010’s Have One on Me. In fact, I’ll go as far as introducing the oft-dreaded “accessible” tag to this delightful album.
For example, the impact of vintage Laurel Canyon and ‘70s folk singers cannot be understated. I hear plenty of the aforementioned Joni, lots of Carole King, some Captain Beefheart, and a smattering of Flying Burrito Brothers. And amidst the familiar plucks of Newsom’s harp, a strong acoustic piano takes a nearly equal place of prominence in the mix, which serves to mellow out the chamber pop with some pop sensibilities. That being said, most folk-pop records don’t include penny whistles, accordions, harpsichords, pitched percussion, and assorted woodwinds (including oboes, bassoons, and piccolos).
I’m also enamored by the lyrical content of these songs. Whereas Ys came across as a batch of whimsical fairytales worthy of Hans Christian Andersen, and Have One On Me sounded like a confessional from a wizened bard traveling with friends, Divers feels like meditations created by a disciple of Ranier Maria Rilke. Let’s examine a few samples:
“Sing: Do you love me? Will you remember? The snow falls above me. The Renderer, renders. The Event is in the hand of God.” – “Sapokanikan”
“And I had better find my way to being the kind of friend you seemed to need in me, at last (at least).” – “Goose Eggs”
“And in an infinite backslide: Ancient border, sink past the West, like a sword at the bearer’s fall. I can’t claim that I knew you best, but did you know me at all?” – “Divers”
“And every little gust that chances through will dance in the dust of me and you, with joy-of-life. And in our perfect secret-keeping: One ear of corn, in silent, reaping joy of life.” – “Time, As a Symptom”
I want someone to turn these songs into a prayer book I can read from each day. They possess a strong zen koan quality, and Newsom backs up this sensation by the reverence in her vocal delivery and the rich textures of her arrangements.
The closest analogue I can conjure up for the growth and maturation of Newsom is the inestimable Neko Case – both artists flip the script on what constitutes contemporary indie rock and folk music by injecting their own personality into old tropes by imbuing them with wit, cleverness, and heaps of attitude.
Divers succeeds on multiple levels: it’s wide-spectrum folk with a reach beyond freak-folk aesthetes, Andy Samberg fans, and people who miss the quirky warbles of The Milk-Eyed Mender. In fact, Joanna Newsom is the same artist who made that debut full-length back in 2004, but she’s expanded her palette and vision without turning into an overbearing auteur. This is simply a tour de force.
Despite all of the cliches you might have heard about the place, Adam P. Newton actually enjoys living in Texas – most of the time. He currently creates and curates content for a marketing agency, and in his limited free time, he writes a memoir about his journey through music called “Explaining Grownup Music to Kids.”