Even today, over a decade since she burst onto the scene with her official debut album The Milk-eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004), California-born harpist, singer and songwriter Joanna Newsom is still regarded as very much an acquired taste, and one which invokes some of the most polarised of “love or loathe” reactions even amongst devotees of the scene’s more idiosyncratic musical talents. It was the bravest of moves for Joanna to follow her debut album with an even more uncompromisingly uncommercial record, the wildly ambitious (even by her own standards) Ys, whose suite of five lengthy songs sported singularly ambitious and lavish Van Dyke Parks arrangements. Again consisting exclusively of her own compositions, Ys proved for many listeners an obstinately impenetrable record, wildly original and not conforming to conventional songwriting orthodoxy in any immediately recognisable way. Ys in turn was followed by the even more extravagant triple-disc offering Have One On Me.
Individual song structures have been elusive at best, hard to grasp or get a handle on, and the bewildering, relentless cascade of invention and creativity has proved too much for even the most musically tolerant. It’s been acknowledged that another barrier to wider appreciation of Joanna’s music has been her eccentric, wilfully wayward vocal style, which can often only be compared to a more screaming, yowling version of Kate Bush. Hard going, then – perhaps.
So it might be thought a welcome development for Joanna’s latest album, Divers, to come across on first acquaintance as a little more accessible almost, at least vocally. If you can get past the first couple of minutes of opening song Anecdotes, which can’t help but recall Wuthering Heights or at least a minor semblance of the Kate Bush warble, then you’ll be able to cope with most of the rest of the disc. The best way I can describe Joanna’s vocal style is frenzied and anguished, disturbed and disturbing, sometimes pained or painful, and yet it can also be strangely consoling. Then, as far as instrumental backing goes, those listeners allergic to the wondrous tones of the harp need have no worries, for that instrument is nowhere near as prominent or ubiquitous within the texture as on previous albums. Tinkling baroque harpsichord underpins the delicacy of Goose Eggs, and classical piano is just as prevalent on many of the tracks. As is the shattered-kaleidoscope effect of the myriad of instrumental colours on tracks like Leaving The City, despite the thudding drumbeats that try to anchor a rhythm onto the texture. And there are even some almost “normal” moments during the skewed, slightly-country Waltz Of The 101st Lighthouse that tumbles into distorted echoes of the shanty Lowlands Away towards its close; Same Old Man similarly fractures a folksong melody.
Divers is not just a play on words and water, but also a sneaky indication that the music accompanying Joanna’s amazing lyrics is divers-e: maddeningly so at times, where moods are disturbed and scattered to the four winds by sudden shifts of metre and tempo, Occasionally, too, it’s less than easy to discern where one song ends and another begins, although each song’s stand-alone thought process is clearly defined; and there’s a remarkable synchronicity in the cyclical device whereby the album starts as it ends, mid-word. That final track (Time, As A Symptom), however, seems almost an anti-climax, a discordant, fluttery, unfocused ramble, after the doomy desperation and hushed dramatic intensity of the penultimate song, A Pin-Light Bent. In the sense of shards of light teasingly bent, refracting the singer’s loss through a displaced pinhole, a black hole. Therein lurks that sense of loss which permeates Joanna’s lyrics, and which has obsessed her writing ever since day one.
Divers is a thoroughly exhilarating, if scary listen, a phantasmal surge of invention that reveals oblique new angles and strange and frightening nuances on each successive play, a technicolour dream that remains frustratingly cryptic. Its soundscape is quite literally unique: as unique as Joanna herself is as a creative force. Divers is literally extraordinary, and extraordinarily literate. But it can also be extraordinarily difficult listening, for your head needs to see and hear around all five sides of the square. It’s weird, sure, but weirdly satisfying; and, once you’re hooked, liable to engage your attention for a very long time and call in to play senses you never knew you had.
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