I fell out of love with Joanna Newsom’s music several years ago — by no fault of hers, certainly. This baggage was all mine.
When I was younger, before I had lost the ability to love the things I loved without pretense, I counted Newsom’s Milk-Eyed Mender (2005) and Ys (2006) among my most favored musical treasures.
It’s no secret that we use the music we relate to most to help define us in the eyes of the world. But, looking back, it’s remarkable how easily the joy I felt when hearing music I loved was rendered inert by my own insecurities. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part — more that my uncertainty about my own art, identity and self-image blocked my ability to feel pleasure from sources I deemed unrepresentative of how I wished to be seen.
For the record, I found my way back to adoring Joanna’s music — around the same time, as you might expect, that I found my way back to something resembling self-acceptance.
So it is with particular awe that I consider the kind of steadfast mind and heart that is able, time and again, to conceive of and execute her vision with such precision. And yet, it is those most singular and unique voices that are most vulnerable to easy caricature — the Renaissance faire princess, the precious antiquity, the walking Portlandia sketch. Somehow, unfazed by all of this cultural noise, Joanna has given us Divers.
Writing about this record is an intimidating prospect. Even from the first listen, the attention to detail at every level is so apparent that it almost feels foolish to suggest that anything more needs to be said.
With Divers, Newsom has doubled down on those aspects of her aesthetic that are most off-putting to her detractors — these are complex, meandering pieces, delicately ornamented with recorder, bouzouki and harpsichord. If these tendencies were deal-breakers for you in the past, you won’t likely feel differently about this.
This isn’t the kind of music you’re going to want to hear at a bar, or over conversations with friends. This is the kind of music that demands patience and attention.
Perhaps because of these particular demands, I didn’t emotionally connect with this record from the start. Of course, it’s easy to be impressed by ambition and fastidious execution — but after several initial listens, this wasn’t enough to hook me. There was a sense that there was some mystery I had yet to uncover, but I couldn’t find my way to it. As it turns out, I was missing the key.
Songwriters often get asked, “Do you write words to fit the music, or music to fit the words?” The answer varies, of course, but this record certainly feels like an example of the latter approach — in many ways this feels like music that exists primarily in service of its lyrics. Truly, these songs are as satisfying to read as they are to listen to, and this process was the missing piece I’d been searching for.
I’m not one to encourage arbitrary ranked lists, but if I were, I might call Divers Newsom’s strongest collection of words yet. Typically, it’s dense and heady, but scattered throughout the literary references and ten-dollar words there are so many perfect, unadorned daggers of simple truth. Take, for example, “The Things I Say” — easy to overlook on the record at a slight 2:35, but a perfect, simple little poem unto itself. Or, conversely, “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” a sauntering piano ballad which turns out to be — I think? — the tale of a fleet of space travelers setting out to colonize Time itself. (There are times when considering this record has made me feel like a child coloring with crayons.)
And the gorgeous title track, which (in feeling, at least) makes me think of Adrienne Rich’s classic poem from the early ’70s, “Diving into the Wreck” — “the words are maps,” says Adrienne. I should have known.
It’s strange to consider how many people will inevitably download these songs from some source or other and never take the time to consider them with more intention. It makes me wonder how many things slip through the collective cracks as the way that we collect and experience music continues to change. I haven’t listened to a record in this way — lights low, lyrics in hand, paying attention — in a long time. But, honestly, it’s rare that a record suggests that it will reward such an approach as much as Divers does.
For such a considered work, it’s no surprise that the production of this record is also a feat of subtle ingenuity. The most obvious aspects of Newsom’s aesthetic — harp or piano with early-music-inspired embellishments — are always the focus. Yet, just when you’ve grown so comfortable with your expectations that you’ve forgotten you have them, Newsom and co-producer Noah Georgeson introduce a sound so unexpectedly modern that it immediately makes you question your own ears. It’s a trick of dissonance that works — such as the touches of Mellotron and Juno synth in “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” and the singing saw (drenched in reverb to the point of being almost unrecognizable) that concludes “The Things I Say.” Curious, attention-catching and utterly unique, the result of these tricks is something akin to sonic time-travel — a record that sounds like past and future all at once.
I have to imagine that this detail, too, was intentional, because Divers is, overall, a meditation on time itself. “When are you from?” asks Rufous Nightjar (which, upon investigation turns out to be, unsurprisingly, a species of bird) on album opener “Anecdotes.” A perfect question. It seems this record is our answer or, at least, a search for one.