Joanna Newsom will never top her landmark album Ys. Indeed, I doubt anyone ever will who tries to imitate her style. So it’s just as well that Divers is nothing like Ys, nor Have One On Me, nor anything else in her discography. It’s quintessentially Newsom: unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Divers is an album about love, but not in any recognisable way. Indeed, even her own conception of love has an unforeseen depth to it. “When I crossed that line in my mind where I knew I was with the person I wanted to marry,” she told Uncut, “it was a very heavy thing, because you’re inviting death into your life … [that love] contains death inside of it, and then that death contains love inside of it.”
Within this strange duality, Newsom’s music flourishes. The opening song, Anecdotes, uses bird imagery, tracing the capability both to fly high and to dive low at incredible and unpredictable pace.
“In the folds and the branches,
Somewhere, out there,
I was only just born into open air.
Now hush, little babe.
You don’t want to be
Down in the trenches,
Remembering with me,
Where you will not mark my leaving,
And you will not hear my parting song.”
Each rise and fall in the cadence of the lyrics is mirrored, matched, or meaningfully juxtaposed with her flawless control of vocal pitch, which is front and centre in the album. Full orchestral backing (including horns, drums, and a variety of other instruments) ladens each track, filling the space without becoming at all overbearing. Her trademark harp takes very much a backseat role in Divers, and yet it’s hardly missed. Newsom proves that it is her songwriting and musicianship that drives her art – not the sound of an instrument seldom-heard elsewhere.
But she never settles. Orchestral swelling marks songs like Anecdotes, while Sapokanikan is a vocal tour de force. Leaving The City crescendos wildly, Goose Eggs invokes a Baroque harpsichord, and Waltz Of The 101st Lightbourne is a piano-led waltz. Far from feeling disparate and separate, Divers is tied together both thematically and by Newsom’s distinctive voice – and paradoxically by her songwriting; each song is so different and yet so obviously Newsom in progression and structure. The album itself is a self-contained loop. With much talk of time and transcendence on songs like You Will Not Take My Heart Alive and album-closer Time, As A Symptom, the album finishes on a cut-off word: “trans-“, while the album begins with the word “sending” in Anecdotes.
Grandiosity is something Newsom never fails to reach, but never in a way that seems too vast, too disconnected. Always framed in a kind of intimacy, the themes she writes of evoke something natural in the listener, like when new knowledge already seems common sense. Indeed, this is something that Divers does better perhaps than any of her previous work. It’s a lot easier to feel disconnected from Ys with lyrics like “And the meteorite’s just what causes the light / And the meteor’s how it’s perceived / And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee”, but Divers feels more rooted. While Ys felt like she had her back to the audience, the listener simply observing her personal masterpiece, in Divers she’s turned around, projecting to the audience with a greater wall of noise but with no compromise in the writing.