If any contemporary artist can be said truly to have kept alive the spirit of the Summer of Love, it has to be Joanna Newsom. California born and bred, clutching an enormous harp and trilling 17 minute songs of bewildering complexity on albums named after mythical Breton cities: even in the headiest days of psychedelia, she would have been a true one off.
After releasing three critically and commercially successful albums within six years (the last of which, Have One On Me, was a triple disc offering), Newsom has been quiet for the past five years, concentrating instead on an appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice and marrying actor/comedian Andy Samberg.
The unexpected announcement of Divers’ release back in August, accompanied by a video for taster track Sapokanikan (directed by the aforementioned Mr Anderson) heightened anticipation around what direction her music would take next. After listening to Divers in its entirety, the answer remains tantalisingly uncertain.
In many ways, Newsom’s new record is a distillation of all the differing qualities that have made her albums to date so distinctive, combining the childlike simplicity of The Milk Eyed Mender, the ambitious, almost symphonic arrangements of Ys and the stylistic variations of Have One On Me. At a relatively concise (for Newsom) 52 minutes and with 11 tracks (none especially long), it feels quite conventional in structure, yet what’s contained within is anything but.
Newsom’s greatest strength is her ability to transport her listeners into a unique sonic world that only she is capable of creating. It’s a patchwork of instrumental textures which frequently shifts and surprises, yet underpinned by a keen melodic thread that prevents the weirdness from becoming too inaccessible. Anecdotes opens the record superbly; a simple flute and piano madrigal that slowly builds momentum through the subtle addition of fluttering woodwind and epic string flourishes. Sapokanikan is a lilting (almost) pop tune that twinkles and bounces with delightful exuberance, while Leaving The City is altogether more strident; a soaring, rippling wave of chamber folk similar to the work of Scotland’s Trembling Bells. Next, Goose Eggs starts off with cascades of whimsical harpsichord before transforming into the year’s most out there country song. Just four tracks in and already the virtuosity is dizzyingly accomplished.
Lyrically, Divers is no less compelling. Always an idiosyncratic storyteller, Newsom covers everything from the Native American roots of New York City (Sapokanikan) to time travellers battling their own ghosts on Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne, retaining throughout her gift for vivid, palpable imagery. Perhaps the best example lies within You Will Not Take My Heart Alive, where the passing of time is memorably evoked in the couplet “Now the towns and forests, highways and plains/Fall back in circles like an emptying drain”.
Newsom’s towering reputation means she can call on a who’s who of impressive collaborators on Divers, including Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and celebrated composers Nico Muhly and Ryan Francesconi. Yet although the influence of Muhly in particular is sometimes apparent, this is very much Newsom’s record. Her own mesmerising talent as an arranger is also best demonstrated on You Will Not Take My Heart Alive. Already a beguiling juxtaposition of sumptuous full blown harp flourishes and Newsom’s voice at its most elastic, the last 30 seconds treat us to a giddy array of duelling keyboards that is wonderfully confident and fluent but never self-indulgent. This perhaps sums up what is arguably Joanna Newsom’s most consistently outstanding record to date.