Joanna Newsom, “Divers”
It’s been more than a decade since Joanna Newsom debuted with The Milk-Eyed Mender, a dauntingly sincere album with fantastical elements, played largely on her pedal harp and voiced in her own indomitable way. Her music has since expanded into an orchestral whirl of melodic diversions, ten-dollar words, and again, that voice, which has grown into something more mellifluous than it once was. Divers is a remarkable release based on its linguistics alone; trying to follow the elastic sounds of “Anecdotes” would leave most mortals tongue-tied and winded, as would trying to catch every reference or alliterated trick. Looking for a deep-dive into the life of early twentieth century political reformer John Purroy Mitchel? It’s here.
As is a fusion of the folksier elements of her debut and the dense, widescreen expression of the large-scale Have One on Me and Ys. The kinds of fable-like songs that marked her early career are here expanded into Joycean exercises, often using old Americana tropes. And by old, I mean old. Like the waltz that’s possibly about the WWII-era Screaming Eagles infantry division that comes complete with tin whistles. And for every Charles-Ives-meets-Van-Dyke-Parks moment, there is something like the stark and wondrous “The Things I Say”—a personal piano piece that feels like a wisp of a love poem that quickly falls into a psychedelic sinkhole. This then sets the stage for the title track, a seven-minute harp and piano excursion that converges Eastern melody and Western pop-ballad pageantry. It feels like the pinnacle of her remarkable career. “Divers” is a hard moment to beat on an album that feels deeply personal, meticulously arranged and frequently dizzying in its verbose vision and expressions of joy.