Recording of December 2015: Divers

Joanna Newsom: Divers
Drag City DC561 (LP/CD). 2015. Joanna Newsom, prod.; Noah Georgeson, prod., eng.; Steve Albini, eng.; John Golden, mastering. ADA/ADD. TT: 51:56
Performance *****
Sonics ****

It's hard to imagine a more auspicious debut than Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City DC263): Her songs on that 2004 release were imaginative, memorable, and almost uniquely literate, and her performances of them—she sang as distinctively as she wrote, and on most of them, her full-size Lyon & Healy concert harp was the sole accompanying instrument—were effective and thoroughly charming. At the age of 22, Newsom had created one of the most original pop records in memory.

If The Milk-Eyed Mender was original, Newsom's 2006 follow-up, Ys (Drag City DC303), in which she explored longer song forms and more intricate arrangements (the latter courtesy Van Dyke Parks), bordered on the visionary: a densely imaginative, five-song masterpiece. In 2010, Have One on Me (Drag City DC390) further stretched her thematic boundaries, showcasing an artist more mature and more at ease. Newsom's new collection, Divers, confirms her capacity for musical and lyrical growth, and stands as her most varied, most moving record to date.

While the title song has as its central metaphor the bond between a pearl diver and his wife, Divers could as easily refer to the variety of lyrical ideas and musical colors on display throughout the album. As in Newsom's previous records, recurring themes—the battlefield, the transition from city to forest, the personification of time, the interconnectedness of birth and death—are presented in tones ranging from the whimsical to the somber, and with Newsom's characteristic reliance on images of wildlife, especially birds. In mild contrast to Ys, the arrangements on Divers grow more organically from the songs themselves, with a wide palette of sonic colors—thanks especially to Newsom's own arrangements for a range of keyboard instruments, including piano, celesta, field organ, Mellotron, and various analog synthesizers. Additional arrangements, including scoring for full orchestra and for individual string and brass instruments, were contributed by Nico Muhly, Dave Longstreth, and others.

"Anecdotes," the opening song, challenges the listener with one of Newsom's more angular melodies—and sets the stage for the similarly challenging "Sapokanikan," the first single from Divers and almost a miniature album unto itself. With references to Shelley, Joyce, and John Purroy Mitchel—New York City's "Boy Mayor" of 1914–17—"Sapokanikan" contains more ideas, more melodic and harmonic twists and turns, than any other five minutes of popular music I can name.

From there, Divers builds gradually to the emotional peak of its title song. With a compelling chord progression and melody, "Divers" is sung and performed by Newsom alone, on harp, piano, flute, Mellotron, and Hohner Guitaret—essentially, an electric thumb piano. To the Guitaret's exotic, percussive sounds, the protagonist sings:

I dream it every night:
The ringing of the pail,
The motes of sand dislodged,
The shucking, quick and bright . . .
And never will I wed.
I'll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life,
And ever hold my breath
Till I may be the diver's wife.

There follows Newsom's harp- and banjo-driven take on the traditional "Same Old Man," after which three decidedly pensive songs comprise the sound of the album's exhalation. In "You Will Not Take My Heart Alive," the unexpected shift, in time signature and mood, to the song's chorus supplies one of Divers' most breathtakingly beautiful moments. This song is also where all of the album's recurring lyrical themes intersect. The protagonist of "A Pin-Light, Bent" muses gratefully on the beauty of life and the inevitability of death. And "Time, as a Symptom" expands on those same themes, to the strains of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

The sound of Divers, which was engineered by Steve Albini and Noah Georgeson, is best described as vivid—enjoyably so. Instruments and voices are clear, colorful, and up-front, and percussive sounds have real force and presence. There isn't a great deal of spatial depth, but the stereo stage is used creatively—this is one album I would not wish to have in mono—and studio effects, such as the echo buildup on the musical saw at the end of "The Things I Say," are applied sparingly and creatively. The tonal balance of my WAV-file edition (a pre-release LP wasn't available) was good, though I wouldn't want an iota more treble.

For those of us who were around when the pop-music album was being transformed from a mere collection of hits and B-sides to an art form in its own right, this is where we hoped our music was heading: a work of rare literacy and intelligence, with daring arrangements that illustrate, rather than merely decorate, melodies that are often hauntingly memorable. Divers does nothing less than confirm Joanna Newsom as one of the most important young recording artists of our time.—Art Dudley

es347's picture

Art I love ya man but seriously? I couldn't make it thru the first bar of Anecdotes...truly one of the worst recorded voices ever in the history of mankind...ouchie!

Venere's picture beat me to it. I was going to hit the nails on blackboard analogy too. When I read rave reviews like this I always go to Amazon and listen to samples. Sometimes it's a winner (like the recent Keith Jarett and Charlie Haden duets) and sometimes it is this record. Forget waterboarding terror suspects. Just make them listen to this record for a couple days. They'll talk.

dalethorn's picture

Wow - I thought I'd heard everything. Maybe try one of those "dark" speakers or headphones, or reach for the treble control and don't miss...