Joanna Newsom – Divers

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Firstly: Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes was kind enough to point out that “The final song, “Time, As a Symptom”, ends with Newsom in raptures, commanding white stars, birds, and ships to “transcend!” On the very last burst, she clips the word to “trans—”. The first word on opener “Anecdotes” is “sending.” It is a perfect loop.” Fantastic, but, more than just that, the first sonic thing we hear on “Anecdotes” is the hoot of an owl, something that you’ll hear again on the closer, and, more than just that, between this and the same linking of “Easy” and “Does Not Suffice” (to say nothing of “In California” and “Does Not Suffice”) on the previous Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom is one of the few – very few – artists invested on making the most of the album format into something more. And it’s more than just that, it’s the how the centerpiece/title track – the album’s longest song – is sandwiched by the album’s shortest ones. Or, how there’s a kinetic motion through the first three tracks, culminating in the bursting “Leaving the City”, whose momentum doesn’t stop until “The Things I Say.” (One of the reasons why the first half is significantly stronger than the second half.) To say nothing about the theme of time throughout the album, most notably on “Sapokanikan”’s invocation of Ozymandias, on “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” and the closer. Secondly: the line “But stand brave, life-liver” from the closer is clearly a reference to the more naïve life-giver of Have One On Me’s “Easy.”

Essentially, Divers one-thirdens (it’s a word now) Have One On Me’s length and triples down on the orchestration: what results are songs that are much more meticulously crafted, and an album that – in tandem with the rest of her discography so far – is built on indelible, practically ineffable moments, as much as it is driven by a narrative heft (as detailed above). Those details, limited to one per song, in absolutely no order, except the first one:

~The first half of “Leaving the City,” which is the album’s best song. Here, Joanna Newsom moves from a re-imagining of a renaissance fair equal to that of the Byrds’ – erm – “Renaissance Fair” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” (with the buzz of an electric guitar (?) to imitate that of the crowd) – I nearly die the way she sings “Ivy” stretching that last syllable until it sounds like “I feel” until you feel exactly what she does – into a full-blown groove. No shit, the ‘chorus’ is her grooviest song yet, in part because the way the drums come in and gives the breakneck descending vocal and harp lines something to hold on to (her most impressive singing – ever, and I actually kind of pity the people who would rather this and all Newsom albums be instrumental). Because of her metaphors and because of her word choice (ie. the first two lines of “Sapokanikan,” which were the first two lines of the album that any Joanna Newsom fan first heard) and more probably, because of her fey voice, a lot of people assume that Joanna Newsom isn’t singing about anything important. Yeah, no, or at least, not always true: I haven’t heard such moving lyrics about leaving the city since, I don’t know, Pavement’s “Silence Kit,” which was more talk than do anyway. When the first instance of the chorus hits, you’re practically already in the van with your belongings thrown in the back: “We mean to stop in increments / But can’t commit”; “Bleach a collar, leech a dollar / From our cents / The longer you live, the higher the rent.” When I first heard Divers, I was admittedly disappointed by the lack of anything that connected with me the way “In California” connects; “Leaving the City” comes closest.

~0:45 – 1:10 of “Sapokanikan” once the song shifts and Joanna abandons the metaphors into the song’s most direct line while the cascading piano lines twinkle above her.

~Similar magic happens on “Anecdotes”, but on a harp instead of a piano. But the key moment to watch out for on the opener is at the 2:01 mark. Everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about, and with the strings swell up around her – it’s like a scene from Cinderella where the title character is able to summon animals with her voice. It happens again at the 2:57 mark.

~The 1:30 mark of “Goose Eggs,” where Joanna Newsom starts a new melody, singing “Recently” and the instruments around her – and there are a ton – make like an alarm clock signalling the start of the spring.

~The sandwiching parts of “The Things I Say”, which is a ditty, but a lovingly sung and melodically direct ditty nonetheless. But the first few measures and the last 30-so seconds are the best: the alliteration of “If I have the space of half a day / I’m ashamed of half the things I say / I’m ashamed to have turned out this way” (with Joanna stretching out that last note gracefully). And the conclusion comes out of nowhere, an alien-like keyboard before backwards vocals (of “Make you any friends” and “Somewhere far away”) materialize and dissolve right before you can figure out what’s happening.

~The backing vocals during the second verse of “Same Old Man,” and the droning moog in the second half. The album’s weakest song, if I had to pick one.

~The choruses of “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” which is the album’s second-weakest, if I had to pick another.

~The new melody introduced at the 2:24 mark of the unusually bare (for this album, anyway) “A Pin-Light Bent” (almost the entirety of the song rests on the same interval being plucked over and over until the conclusion). The album’s third… euh, you get the point.

~The second half of “Time, As A Symptom”, starting at the 2:47 mark, with the lights coming in and the conductor giving the order for the strings, then horns, before eventually the entire orchestra (which includes a ton of birds) and drums enter while Joanna Newsom launches into a clipped-melody recalling “Leaving the City.” It’s an appropriate climax, not just of the song or the preceding quieter numbers, but of the entire album.

—– —– —– —– —–

I realize I didn’t mention either “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” (which is a little tamer than its title or narrative would suggest) or “Divers” – but neither had any transcending (sorry, though nothing else suffices) moments – both fantastic, though. And maybe I did “Sapokanikan” or “Goose Eggs” (both textured with just as many instruments as the ending of “Time, As a Symptom” if not more) and “Anecdotes” (if only for its narrative) a disserve to reduce them to a single moment, but I’m suffering from a cold and it’s near impossible to think, and I started this this way and we’re knee-deep now. The only thing about the album I’ve left to say is the drumming on “Sapokanikan” is amazing – I remember there being dissatisfaction about it when it was first released, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, I think.

Between Joanna Newsom, Ashley Monroe, Carly Rae Jepsen, Grimes, Holly Herndon, Jlin, Kacey Musgraves and Sleater-Kinney – amongst others – consistently finding their way on 2015 year-end lists, there seemed to be more critically acclaimed female artists last year than any preceding year, recent memory or otherwise. Which is only a good thing.

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