I think it would be fair to say that in the past I’ve liked the idea of Joanna Newsom’s music more than the music itself. I’ve just pulled down the 3LP box of ‘Have One On Me’ and I’m struggling to recall when last it adorned my turntable. An expansive but often intimate release, it picked over the detritus remaining after a former relationship in the lyrics, whilst eschewing conventional song structures on a number of its tracks. While I know I like it, I don’t like it enough to truly know it. ‘Ys’, ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ and even the ‘Ys Street Band’ EP are all there in the racks but rare is the time I reach for them. No such problem surrounds ‘Divers’, an album which has made a grand impression on me in a short space of time. Indeed, I can’t help wondering where it would be in the list if it had been released a little earlier in the year.
As if somehow knowing which bits of those earlier records I was drawn to, this latest feels like a deeply satisfying distillation of Newsom’s delightfully irregular approach to songwriting. As a result, relatively short songs burst with invention. The shimmering marxophone on ‘Leaving The City’ is neatly usurped by mellotron bursts, pushing it in a more chaotic direction. Just as Julia Holter managed to evoke the sound of Los Angeles in ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ on 2013’s ‘Loud City Song’, this cacophonous burst delivers something similarly immersive.
‘Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne’ is bedecked with both field organ and accordion to predictably charming effect, while ‘The Things I Saw’ is just piano and a touch of musical saw. For some reason, it makes me think of the early Tom Waits albums when he was still happy telling a decent story alongside a nifty little melody. When a snippet of Newsom’s vocals are suddenly run backwards at the song’s conclusion, it feels oddly modern for the context, echoing the heavily treated samples so favoured by dubstep.
‘Same Old Man’ is a brief delight, conjuring an incredibly strong sense of Karen Dalton, whose minimal discography belongs in everyone’s record collection. At just shy of two and a half minutes, it’s a fleeting, poetic meditation on time passing. Along with ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive‘, it ensures that momentum is sustained throughout. Indeed, the album’s finest moment and the reason why, I suspect, Newsom finally fully clicked for me is ‘Time, As A Symptom’.
Commencing with bird noise and sombre piano, it slowly gains intensity, the first delivery of the refrain “the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life” occupying a sparse landscape, only for the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to put in an appearance by the time it comes around again. From there the track ascends beguilingly, en route to a quite staggering crescendo. It is one of my favourite songs of 2015 and reason enough to ensure that ‘Divers’ enters your life.
Oh, and I’m far from the first one to say it, but listen to the last line of the wonderful closer and then play the start of the first track, ‘Anecdotes’, again. It’ll make you smile.