Newsom sounds more developed than ever.
Kate Bush has always been an easy point of comparison for Joanna Newsom, usually in the broad-stroke equation of their respective approaches to baroque art-pop and their high-pitched voices. A more useful collation, however, might focus less on the fact of their airy falsettos than the way that each artist’s deepening musical range has paralleled greater vocal control. That’s not to say that Newsom ever lost the airy quality of her voice, but since Ys. exposed her faerie lilt to a wider audience, she has smoothed out some of the occasional squeaks and strained warbles that left her open to criticism.
From the first notes of her latest album, Divers, Newsom sounds more developed than ever. Over gentle harp plucks and soft piano, her voice floats into earshot like the fog of Brigadoon on opener “Anecdotes.” Her singing once again aligns with the composition, which in this case is both relentlessly spare and spacious yet reveals such layers of instrumentation that even its light tone becomes dizzyingly complex. Woodwinds gradually curve around the piano like vines, and eventually strings rise up with the sun. As ever, Newsom never settles into a verse-chorus pattern, which frees the arrangement to keep growing and shifting, a structure that befits Newsom’s drifting points of perspective and shaggy-dog mini-narratives. Yet where prior songs spun out epic, free-form yarns, “Anecdotes” shows a keen focus of vision despite its unorthodoxy. As in the later “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” the point-of-view blurs between soldiers and birds who gaze impassively at the human squabbles below. Stacking the two perspectives on top of each other mixes their emotional states, so the fighters on the ground are calm enough to notice details like the dew on the ground while the birds are driven more than ever to appreciate their time on Earth.
Just before the baton passes from human to avian, Newsom sings of a soldier leaving the battlefield and heading home, “Where round every bend I long to see/ Temporal infidelity.” “Temporal infidelity” could have given the album its title; all 11 of the songs grapple with time as an oppressive construct, both in personal and historical terms. The latter informs the aforementioned tales of battle, and Newsom’s slippery approach to concrete time leads the soldiers of the “Waltz” to ultimately do battle with their own ghosts, an example of temporal infidelity that only compounds the misery of war instead of providing an escape from it. Newsom’s archaic style has always recalled European history out of necessity, as American (or at least, White American) history does not stretch back as far as the Renaissance imagery her music conjures. But “Sapokanikan” tackles a specifically American history, that of the destruction of Native Americans at the hands of settlers. Using Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as a framing device, Newsom cribs from that poem’s vision of time’s ruinous effects by contrasting the pre-Manhattan village that gives the song its title with the modernized New York where the spirit of Tamanend has now been dissipated among the decay of the buildings that buried his memory long ago. It is, in effect, a knock at gentrification, blown up to cover nearly a half-century.
The rest of the songs may be less epic in topic but are no less grand in scale. “Leaving the City” takes a common sentiment–of the sense of regret and stasis when a couple moves out of the city to settle in the more placid countryside–and makes the elegiac tune sound antic with Newsom’s knotty internal rhymes, a pushback against idle, that bends the composition into a series of percolating loops that match the suffocating nature of the lyrics. “Goose Eggs” returns to birds but makes its most profound observations back at ground level with a chillingly mordant nostalgia as she recalls, “We cut facsimiles of love and death/ Just separate holes in sheets/ Where you cannot breathe and you cannot see.” Occasionally, Newsom’s bleak folk ventures into old-school country, as in “The Things I Say,” with dejected lines like “There’s an old trick played/ When the light and the wine conspire/ To make me think I’m fine.” Even the microphone adds to the illusion that this track was discovered among some dusty 78s, giving Newsom’s voice a distant, scratchy fidelity.
These flights of technological fancy and heightened lyrical focus are more than matched by the compositional prowess on display. Newsom has always been an excellent musician and an excellent arranger, but here she reduces the sprawl of her tracks down to manageable lengths. Instead of tossing out some of the grandeur of her writing, the songs on Divers are like folded steel, constantly forged and reforged until the final product is unbreakable. Never before has the artist’s music so deeply commented on the lyrics they score; in the title track, in which a diving lover appears to plunge so deeply into the sea that he ventures into a realm where space and time have been crushed by the pressure, Newsom’s delicate harp takes on a menacing edge, as if it were the sound of oxygen leaving the diver’s body. In the final track, “Time, As a Symptom,” Newsom heads out of the sea and into the cosmos, her lonely voyager gradually joined by the sounds of chirping birds, bells and even the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. In an album that records time and death from remote vantage points, the closer at last sees Newsom break, and as the music swells around her one-way journey, she desperately attempts to reverse course. No one is safe, the track makes perfectly clear, and if its apocalyptic groan does not finally get people to stop treating Newsom like a precocious child instead of a serious, monstrously talented artist, it puts her light years beyond caring.