Wednesday, November 4, 2015

album review: 'divers' by joanna newsom

I've been hesitant to cover this record.

Hell, I've been hesitant to cover Joanna Newsom in general, who I knew more by reputation than anything else before I started doing my research for this review. I knew she had one of the most idiosyncratic voices in folk music - a bit like a cross between Bjork and Sia but more rounded and warm - and I knew she had amassed a lot of critical acclaim for her vibrantly detailed, excellently witty songwriting that probably runs as close to twee as I'd ever tolerate... except for the fact that she also happens to be an incredibly gifted composer utilizing her harp and a lot of gorgeously rich instrumentation to compose layered, gorgeously polyrhythmic songs drenched in English and Celtic folk.

Now the majority of this is right up my alley, and thus when I finally started listening through The Milk-Eyed Mender, I did find a lot to like, even despite a few minor missteps when it came to instrumental tones that clashes Newsom's unique vocals. Then came Ys... and on the one hand, I liked the more opulent orchestration for how well it could match the dramatic swell of the writing and Newsom's more strident tones, but there was a part of me that missed the quieter, funnier witticisms that ran through her more stripped back material. The album started to pick up the feel of meandering pastoral indulgence, focusing more on intricate detail instead of the overall whole, which seemed to reach critical mass on the triple album Have One On Me that she released in 2010. And here's the thing: yes, over two hours of music can be long, but it's one of those releases that really works better considering each disc as an individual release with its own musical motifs and underlying themes, and really, they don't feel as long as you'd think, especially if you're poring through the lyrics at the same time. That said, I do understand why some think the quieter second disc can drag a bit, especially compared to the more elaborate instrumentation of the first and the slightly brighter tones of the third. And when I heard that Joanna Newsom was pursuing even more elaborate, layered instrumentation on her newest album this year... well, I was interested. At the very least, it'd probably sound beautiful and be a rewarding exercise in poetry, so I dove into Divers - what did I find?

Well, it's a fascinatingly cerebral listen - but I expected that. Joanna Newsom took five years to write this elliptical album about how we view and understand the passage of time, of course it's going to take its classically overwritten style seriously and require a lot of listens to decode. It's certainly her most melancholic and statuesque record, with the grandest textures and most ambitious themes, with some of her most fantastical stories... and yet for as much as I want this album to reach the pinnacle as one of the best of the year, it just misses transcendence with me. Still a damn great record that's gorgeously composed, beautifully textured, and excellently written... but I feel it was on the cusp of a real revelation and yet didn't quite break free - ironic, given the themes and nature of the album, but we'll get to that.

To begin, let's talk about Joanna Newsom herself - and I'll say it, her voice is easily the most accessible it's ever been. Speaking as someone who hasn't always loved the more eccentric elements in her tone, there's a liquid yet fluttering smoothness to her voice that I really do like. Where things go slightly awry is in the vocal production, both the multi-tracking and the vocal filters. First, the multi-tracking: I have to admit, it was a little jarring when I heard it on the final minute of 'Waltz of the 101st Lightborne', mostly because Newsom's tone is so strident that she doesn't need it, but it did grow on me, especially on songs like 'Sapokanikan' or the choral vocals on the first half of 'Time, As A Symptom'. What didn't really grow on me were some of the filters that made her voice feel a bit lo-fi and compressed like on 'The Things I Say' or the traditional folk song 'Same Old Man' - yes, I get why they were used, in order to evoke an older, earthier vibe, but especially on 'Same Old Man' they felt like they hemmed her in unnecessarily, and it did get distracting.

Now some of you are probably wondering if it was a similar case for the broader instrumental selection that Newsom brought to the table, and while I'd like to say she put together a breathlessly gorgeous symphonic tapestry that's impervious to criticism... yeah, not quite. Now don't get me wrong, the foundational melodies on the harp and piano are goddamn gorgeous, and her knack for melodic transitions in time signature and tempo on songs like 'Waltz of the 101st Lightborne' is stunning. And elements like the swell of cellos and strings on 'Anecdotes', the darker, more spacious tones on 'You Will Not Take My Heart Alive', or that faded, clipping saw on 'The Things I Saw' , the last a song that's practically an interlude for Newsom but sounds fantastic... it marries grounded elegance with the ethereal in stunning fashion. And even the instrumental touches that feel more ornamental, like the harpsichord and zither still manage to work in adding that quivering delicacy. Of course, the instrumental element that got me the most excited was the return of the country elements on 'Goose Eggs' - I've thought Newsom had a unique touch with country tones and she nails it here. But there are two instrumental choices I have to question and the first is the horns and recorder - on tracks like 'Sapokanikan' and 'Time, As A Symptom', they can feel a bit garish and overstated, not quite fitting as well with the rest of the song as deeply. The more immediately jarring one are the mellotrons - most immediately noticeable on 'Leaving The City' in the most blaring form, I felt the best usage was when they were more subtle, like on the traditional folk of 'Same Old Man' for a supple foundation... shame the rest of the song didn't rise to more.

But if you listen closely across these songs, you'll begin to see instrumental and lyrical motifs mirrored across this record, with the piano ballad of 'The Things I Say' operating as the folding point - which of course Newsom intended, which is why the song is loaded with references to a road not taken. And I'll definitely give her credit for the meticulous construction on the symmetry - the country elements on 'Goose Eggs' and 'Same Old Man', the spacious creeping chill of death on 'Leaving The City' echoed on 'You Will Not Take My Heart Alive', the contemplation of one's legacy when falling out of a plane on 'Sapokanikan' and 'A Pin-Light Bent', and most starkly of all, the mourning dove call and the birds in the lyrics of 'Anecdotes' and 'Time, As A Symptom', with the final word of the closing track matching up with the first word, closing the loop. It's what I mean when I say 'elliptical' album structure, and you can trace it either backwards or forwards.

But that's cleverness in construction - what is the album actually about? Well, once you untangle the web of pastoral imagery and storytelling - with the running motif of descending towards death spanning the entire record either through falling or diving - it at first seems to be the question of what is more painful: to be born or to die? Now it's generally accepted that it's death, which is why so much of this album focuses on that encroaching ending and the possibility that everything we might say or do might be eradicated and forgotten by time's steady march... which is why Joanna Newsom injects this record with a hefty load of physics imagery and time travel to subvert traditional expectations. And speaking as someone with a degree in physics, Newsom gets the broad strokes of the concepts as well enough as she needs to on 'A Pin-Light Bent' and especially on the pulpy sci-fi story of 'Waltz of the 101st Lightborne' which I absolutely love, which shows a legion going back in time to try and recapture the past after their world was ravaged by war... only to slip back towards death. And as on its counterpart on 'Divers', it's not about going back to primordial darkness - you're still stuck on the same loop. But really, this album isn't really that cosmic, and the first major clue is given on 'The Things I Say' - contemplating possibilities, what might have been, choices. Now think back to the ellipse of this record: two paths, forward and backward, towards birth and death - Newsom makes it clear that death is considered more painful because it's the end that overshadows the rest. But if time were to flow both ways, wouldn't birth have its own unique pain if time flowed the other way? The larger point is that time is finite, and as Newsom states outright: 'Love is not a symptom of time/ Time is just a symptom of love'. We need to make a choice to find love and not expect time to drag it to us - we're the ones who can use the pinhole, the tiniest of choices, to bend the light in the Amora Obscura - and while it might be finite on its projected course, we need to be able to accept it, and cherish the love it provides, all the more valuable for it. okay, maybe the album is that cosmic, but it brings together that human element that makes it feel approachable, especially in her instrumentation. Hell, I normally expect to see these sorts of themes in progressive rock or metal, not here! And you can bet I admire the hell out of what Joanna Newsom did in the construction and meticulous arrangements of this record, even if I'd argue it's just a shade shy of completely getting there for me. And that's the frustrating thing: Divers is a deep, incredibly well thought-out album... but beyond a few stellar songs it doesn't quite reach the most of its potential. If a few elements in the instrumentation had been tuned a little tighter, the textures and sounds blended a bit stronger, I would be saying it's her best record... as it is, for me it's an extremely strong 8/10 and a high recommendation, particularly if you're looking for a poetic record to really deconstruct. But even if you're not - folks, you're not going to get many records that sound this gorgeous this year, definitely check this out, you will not regret it.

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