Within the first seconds of Joanna Newsom’s latest album Divers, amidst the gorgeous strings that slowly rise in volume from the background, and just before Newsom utters the first line of the record’s first song “Anecdotes”, a loon can be heard. While I was familiar with this bird prior to researching Divers, and immediately recognized its unique call, I’d had no idea a diver was another name for a loon. This revelation was the first of many educational discoveries I would make while experiencing Newsom’s first full-length album in five years, which is so dense and layered both lyrically and musically that it may require as many years to completely dissect and analyze.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments on Divers that allow for instant joy and easy digestion, but said moments are most definitely in the minority. For example, please take a moment to reflect upon this verse from the album’s first single, a five-minute-plus song titled “Sapokanikan”:
“Where all of the twenty-thousand attending your footfall
And the cause that they died for are lost in the idling bird calls
And the records they left are cryptic at best
Lost in obsolescence
The text will not yield, nor X-ray reveal
With any fluorescence
Where the hand of the master begins and ends”
This is a small portion of the same song that references Ozymandias, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, in the very first line. Surely you see what we’re dealing with here. Divers isn’t an album that is intended to be excavated with a backhoe, but rather a dental pick.
The intention of this review is not to bore you with an academic discourse on Divers by providing an interpretation of every lyrical analogy and tonal nuance secreted herein. After all, it’s evident this album was designed in order that precious artifacts such as those make themselves known after many, many listens and careful contemplation of what Miss Newsom and her team have obviously spent a large amount of their own time creating for you to discover. What this review will do, however, is attempt to focus on the aforementioned more immediately accessible parts of Divers.
At first listen, the album’s initial two songs sound so similar they might easily be stitched together without the listener knowing they were separate pieces. It isn’t until Divers’ third track, “Leaving the City”, that a drum kit is heard for the first time and the songs thereafter begin to reveal their uniqueness. Original moments continue to appear. The song “Goose Eggs” utilizes a slide guitar that sounds odd next to a harpsichord, but it’s not the last time a countrified element will factor into this collection.
At just over two and a half minutes “The Things I Say” is both Divers’ shortest and catchiest song. With only a piano accompanying her, Joanna beautifully stretches the words, sustaining the end of each of the verses in a way remarkably similar to John Denver’s vocal style on his song “Thank God I’m A Country Boy”. The song “Same Old Man”, another country-like track, has Newsom beautifully harmonizing with herself over treated banjo, harp, and an analogue synth which provides moog-like bass patterns.
“You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” has the most obvious chorus of any of the songs here. Synthesizers again make an appearance to help drive home the track’s bold climax. Newsom’s dynamics never stray too far from her delicate timbre, and while always beautiful, it feels at times that a growl or angry emoting would help to punctuate a lyric on occasion. Unfortunately, these vulnerable vocal moments never come.
As if to bookend Divers, the loons make an appearance on the record’s final track “Time, As A Symptom”. The drum kit and horns kick in just as Newsom’s vocals begin to harmoniously overlap while the string section swells, creating a stunning all-in finish.
The combining of Newsom’s idiosyncratic vocal style and expertly played piano and harp with string arrangements provided by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra is truly a brilliant pairing. Divers is a collaborative project (not solely in performers, but also engineering, namely Steve Albini and Noah Georgeson) that when combined produced an exceptional variety of complex songs that can’t easily be imitated.
As insinuated previously, Divers is an album that reveals itself in time. It’s definitely not recommended for anyone looking for quick ditties with infectious hooks or songs with a ‘intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle, chorus, chorus, end’ pop structure. But if you’re a patient person who enjoys being immersed in a dense, thoughtful sound-world, complete with highly complex, avant-garde arrangements and cryptic, deeply intellectual lyrical content performed by a truly original vocalist, give Divers a shot.