In the five years since we last heard from Joanna Newsom on her sprawling, 3-disc release Have One on Me she’s gotten married, ventured into acting, and if her latest album Divers is any indication, gained some new perspective. Where Have One and its predecessor, the densely woven Ys, found Newsom stretching out across compositions and exploring them to their fullest, here she has reigned in her artier proclivities in favor of the succinctness of her debut.
This isn’t to say she has altogether abandoned the stylistic framework within which she’s been operating for the better part of a decade. Rather she’s managed a near-perfect refinement of both sides of her musical persona, crafting an album that feels more like a triumphant summation of her recording career to date. Throughout its nearly hour-long run time, Divers offers elements of her last three major releases, combined in a way that makes it feel like a natural evolutionary step in her journey from elfin folk princess to majestic modern, peerless classical composer.
From opening track “Anecdotes” on, it’s clear Divers is a different animal entirely. Gone are the ornate orchestral arrangements in favor of a sparser approach that harkens back to her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. But where that album relied almost solely on Newsom’s harp and voice, here she augments her arrangements with assorted instruments and ideas borrowed from her previous releases. And while there are still elements of her more ambitious work throughout, these are largely reigned in and refined and used to complement the bare-bones song structure rather than dominate.
Subtle string swells permeate “Anecdote”, rising along with the song’s energy and intensity in a manner recalling early Randy Newman or Newsom’s sometimes-collaborator, Van Dyke Parks. Ultimately, the song functions as a sort of musical evolution of Newsom’s sound itself. Beginning with a spare harp figure and voice, it builds over the course of its six and a half minutes into something cinematic in scope and breathtaking in its unhurried melodicism. The closing piano melody is one of her loveliest yet.
Also back is the more pronounced vocal affectation that made her debut so polarizing. But like the arrangements, it too has been reined in and used in a manner more complementary to the overall sound. That it’s wrapped in additional instrumentation rather than laid bare certainly helps mask some of the more cloying aspects of this affectation, but does nothing to lose the elfin appeal originally on display over a decade ago. On the typically esoteric “Sapokanikan” (whose opening line has the “cause” being “Ozymandian”), she deploys a disturbingly beautiful self-harmony that impressively shows off her expanded vocal range and control.
Throughout, it’s these subtle flourishes and displays of artistic growth over the course of four albums and an EP that show Newsom having found the clearest and best representation of her artistic voice. Indeed, Divers functions as the exemplar of her artistic evolution, carrying with it the best characteristics of her previous iterations to create a near-perfect summation of her aesthetic. It certainly helps that these are some of her best, most-focused songs in years. Richly vivid imagery complements the wildly disparate traditional folk elements with Newsom planting one foot in Appalachia, the other in the Renaissance. In this, she combines The Milk-Eyed Menders’ minimalism (“Same Old Man”) with Have One on Me’s maximalism (the epic title track) to great effect.
And while she’s still largely abandoned traditional verse/chorus structure in favor of twisting, knotted allusion-heavy narratives, there’s a suppleness to her voice that, despite the lack of readily discernible melodies, makes each feel inherently melodic and clearly plotted out. During “A Pin-Light Bent” she displays an impressive classical vocal range and a purity of voice in her higher register that often goes unnoticed due to her occasional overreliance on affectation versus purity. While closing track “Time, As a Symptom” may well be the single most beautiful thing she has ever recorded, featuring a triumphant crescendo that ends on the sound of the cooing doves that serve to bookend the album.
On “Goose Eggs”, the words come tumbling further as the melody rises and falls as if registering the pulse of the song itself. But around a minute in, something fascinating happens to the harpsichord-driven track: as a country twang guitar enters the mix, something creeps into her voice that sounds the approximation of a smile, knowing full well this odd musical juxtaposition takes a higher level of artistic confidence to pull off without seeming trite or, worse, forced.
Where before the combination of pages and pages of densely structured and esoteric reference-laden lyrics and layers of orchestral majesty proved a somewhat exhausting listening experience, on Divers Newsom has managed to find a near-perfect middle ground without sacrificing any of the uniqueness that makes her such an iconoclastic performer. Less immediate than her debut but not as challenging as her most recent work, Divers is an ideal distillation of everything that makes Joanna Newsom one of the most unceasingly fascinating musicians working today. A true iconoclast, she operates in no contemporary musical form and largely without equal.