Five years on from the epic and sprawling Have One On Me, it is little surprise to find Joanna Newsom, one of our greatest artists, back with an album of breathtaking beauty, fashioning, forging, and conjuring once again something entirely unique. Nor is it a surprise that after the sheer length of Have One On Me – a triple album which ran for more than two hours – Divers returns to the relative concision of The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys, clocking just under 52 minutes. And yet never before – not even when working with Van Dyke Parks – has Newsom attempted such a cohesive cycle of songs, astounding for the way it weaves together themes and stretches so fully across the previous extent of her music.
Some of the pieces on Divers have had fairly long gestation periods: an early version of the title-track, dubbed ‘The Diver’s Wife’ by ardent fans, emerged in June 2012 in San Francisco, during a concert with Philip Glass and Tim Fain; under the name ‘Look and Despair’, ‘Sapokanikan’ had been added to the live repertoire by the time of the Treasure Island Music Festival in October; and ‘Leaving The City’ was first performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in July 2013.
Newsom crafted much of the finished product herself, writing all but one of the album’s eleven songs, and arranging for harp, numerous keyboard instrument including piano and synthesizers, and vocals. Nico Muhly contributed the orchestral arrangements on ‘Anecdotes’, Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors did the same for ‘Time, As A Symptom’, and Newsom’s longtime collaborators Ryan Francesconi and Noah Georgeson were among the other participants, with Georgeson alongside Joanna also producing and mixing the album.
After the initial throb of humming chords, distant drum rolls, a hooting owl, and the noises of birds and insects, ‘Anecdotes’ finds our narrator out with the frontier soldiers, elegantly unfolding the themes of the passing of time and what lies beyond: ‘Sending the first scouts over, / back from the place beyond the dawn […] And Time, in our camp, is moving / as you’d anticipate it to. / But what is this sample proving? / Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do.’
In the spaces and between the lines of warfare, the narrator engages with species of nightjar, birds active only in the quiet hours of the late evening and early morn, difficult to see though they nest on the ground. Time is ineluctable, but our perceptions can shift, and amid the rush of life we can seek ‘temporal infidelity’ and respite from the burden of remembering. Musically, Newsom’s harp is sustained by trombone, clarinet, double bass, and violins, her voice reverberating in the centre as these layers gather and swoop from the midpoint of the song. Initially recalling aspects of ‘Easy’ and ‘Have One On Me’, astral synths glimmer before ‘Anecdotes’ segues back to its opening melody.
If ‘Anecdotes’ ends on the personal and familial, ‘Sapokanikan’ develops a concurrent theme: as much as Divers is about our individual navigation of time, it is also about our communal understanding of the past, and how people and places both forgotten and remembered filter through to the everyday present, impalpable but still exerting their hold.
The remarkable diversity of references on ‘Sapokanikan’ – to the Lenape Native Americans, the ‘Ozymandian’ poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Horace Smith, the Broadway musical Maytime, the uncovered art of Vincent van Gogh, Titian, and Arthur Streeton, and finally to the ‘Boy Mayor’ John Purroy Mitchel, all configured within a setting of Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park – have been discussed at length elsewhere. They amount to a people’s history richly drawn through art, affording the close interpreter a unique set of connections and a wealth of avenues to explore. But equally important is how, even undistinguished, these references cohere to afford an emotionally moving sense of New York as an inherited city and a fleeting space.
Newsom sashays over restless piano, marching drums, and the tender twinkling of the celesta – a softer-toned counterpart to the glockenspiel. Francesconi’s strings, including bouzouki and baglama, buttress the piece. And in the long final verse, the vocal line seamlessly carries other voices, becoming a tremulous multi-layered chorus as Judith Linsenberg’s recorder helps lift ‘Sapokanikan’ to its devastating climax.
Formed around the Mellotron and the drumming of Peter Newsom, ‘Leaving The City’ emerges as one of the most visceral songs in Joanna’s catalogue. Dramatic dynamic shifts, searing feedback, and sweeping passages full of alliteration, sibilance, and internal rhymes depict a hesitant move to the countryside to bend before the raw power of nature, ‘Leaving The City’ reverberating towards its close with the sounds of the Marxophone, a fretless zither.
‘Goose Eggs’ displays a similarly baroque opening, this time on the Wurlitzer and clavichord, but continues at a gentler pace, at moments echoing ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’, unfolding a narrative of faltering friendship. Together, ‘Leaving The City’ and ‘Goose Eggs’ see Newsom expanding her sound palette with overt ornamentation and the elements of prog rock.
‘Divers’ has Newsom embarking on uncharted lyrical terrain also: taking as its pivotal point the eve of a future fourth Great War, ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ is a piece of science fiction which harkens back to the near and distant past. Recalling the Bering Strait, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the garden of the observatory in Oakland, California funded by Anthony Chabot, the narrator of the song concludes that ‘Time is taller than Space is wide’; along the way figuring war as a process of ‘eternal return and repeat’, and coining a term, ‘simulacreage’, to indicate the mere imitation of new prospects for old humankind. ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ plays as a graceful shanty, with piano, organ, and padding percussion, before a choir surfaces for a folksy finale.
At first a plainly eloquent summation of self-reproach and the limits of communication, ‘The Things I Say’ comes to contemplate closed doors and paths not followed, its final thirty seconds of unconstrained sound sawing through the universe with spectral synthetics and reversed vocal fragments. It serves as the perfect lead-in to ‘Divers’, the album’s title track and centrepiece.
Newsom’s starry-eyed harp descends and ascends, taking halting breaths and delving into the darkness sustained by piano and Mellotron, on this tale of unrequited love and life left unfulfilled. In an interview with NPR Music, Joanna noted how the imagery of diving, most literal here, recurs in other forms elsewhere on the album: for instance in the nightjars of ‘Anecdotes’, and in the manner of John Purroy Mitchel’s death implicated on ‘Sapokanikan’. ‘Divers’ provides the fullest expression of another of the album’s motifs, the agonising divide between men and women, or just as much, between the realms conventionally apportioned to the two genders.
The narrator here can never be sure between love and deception: given a jewel that seems twice as valuable as her life, convention also dictates that she stay stranded with the women on the pier as she watches her lover ‘phosphoresce’ into the ocean. The strain of enduring separation can be overwhelming, and in some of the most forceful lines on Divers, crying out in pain and in self-affirmation, the narrator exclaims: ‘A woman is alive! / A woman is alive; / you do not take her for a sign in nacre on a stone, / alone, unfaceted and fine.’ As with the painted-over artworks of ‘Sapokanikan’, women may be cast aside by the male memory, but witness and felt experience lingers.
After the length and depth of ‘Divers’, ‘Same Old Man’ switches the pace, a traditional song which wraps into four short verses an evocation on the steady passage of time, death, and the circularity of existence, ending with a reminder of ‘Sapokanikan’ in the line ‘New York City continues on, alone’. At points Newsom pulls the vocal in the direction of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’, the simple harp and banjo accompaniment unsettled by the nudging of the Minimoog. ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’, another reflection in the face of death with its titular refrain and twirling harp, rebounds in the coda with a fascinating sequence of electronic variations, bearing a strange affinity only to the flowering at the close of ‘Go Long’.
Austere and immediately affecting, ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ utilises just Newsom’s voice and the humming of her plucked harp. It shares in style and temperament with Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Fourth Of July’, released earlier this year on Carrie & Lowell. Where ‘Fourth Of July’ is a conversation between Sufjan and his mother on her deathbed, the narrator of ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ is restlessly endeavouring to disentangle her own thoughts: but the essence of both songs lies in the need to clutch onto life and to understand something about it amid the stark realisation of its temporality.
Newsom delicately and intimately renders the doleful lines of the song. On the lyric site Genius.com, astute interpreters have suggested a sympathy with James L. Dickey’s poem ‘Falling’, which itself cites a 1962 New York Times account of the plight of an air stewardess, who apparently plunged to her death through ‘an emergency door that suddenly sprang open’. Dickey’s poem, written in free verse, was published in 1967. And certainly the middle section of ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ evokes something of ‘Falling’, with its reference to a ‘poor flight attendant’ and a garden waking to meet this particularly hapless diver.
The same site also offers a parallel with Newsom’s favourite author, Vladimir Nabokov, noting that the opening sentence of his autobiographical Speak, Memory reads:
‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’
The lines in ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ from ‘In our lives is a common sense / that relies on the common fence’ to ‘and the Selfhood inverts on a mirror / in an Amora Obscura’ are some of the most complex in Divers, revolving through concepts of self-identity, self-love, our commonality as human beings and the sort of relationships we foster, and what lies beyond. But Nabokov abounds – Camera Obscura (Камера обскура) was the Russian title of the novel he later translated into English as Laughter in the Dark – and reveals Divers as an exploration of consciousness, in his own words that ‘marvel of consciousness – that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being’. And more, from the final chapter of Speak, Memory:
‘I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.’
This outlook extends into ‘Time, As A Symptom’, the final song on Divers. As with ‘Anecdotes’, it is prefaced by the calling of birds, described in the album liner notes as a ‘mourning-dove-song’. The music resides in voice and harp until the final surge of drums and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. And beyond Newsom’s sombre and heart-rending delivery, and the bleak appreciation that ‘When cruel death debases, / we believe it erases all the rest / that precedes’, ‘Time, As A Symptom’ stands as a brave act of defiance in the face of death, an affirmation that joy sustains us and, as the narrator repeats, can ultimately transcend time, our sorrows, and the myriad limitations of our world, transcend, transcend, trans- and then what?
The cyclical structure of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake sees the final sentence of the novel rush back into the first:
‘a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs’
Joyce drew his concept of the cycle from the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, while it was first advanced as a form of explanation for what was then titled Work in Progress by Samuel Beckett, in his essay ‘Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce’. With its hopeful abundance of language, the narrative of Divers is a cycle in the true Joycean sense.
The final line of ‘Time, As A Sympton’ ends on a hiatus: after the word ‘transcend!’ is uttered twice as a form of exhortation, on the third call it breaks off midway, leaving the final phrase of the album an undetermined ‘trans-‘. But the ‘Sending’ which begins ‘Anecdotes’ completes the loop, a cycle, a circle, the fully-fledged rebirth of an album we will be listening to once more and ever after.