Contemplating Divers

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This was not an easy article to write. As I prepared, I tried to structure my thoughts but I couldn’t. Much of what you are about to read is essentially stream of consciousness, which was the only way I could have a remotely logical progression of thoughts.

Joanna Newsom has set the bar very high for herself. She creates records rich with so much lyrical content to decipher and so many interpretations to consider, I find myself feeling a lot of pressure to deliver an accurate representation in this essay. (Not to mention that I have put an immense amount of pressure on myself by naming this blog after a Joanna Newsom song…) This is ironic in itself, since one of my references is an interview she gave the Fader, in which she gives us all explicit permission to examine her work at any level of devotion. But it is my devotion to her that flusters me most. 

In that Fader interview, Newsom mentions that this was a personal record, written in a way where each track asks the same question. I’ll tell you right now that I still don’t know what that question exactly is, but I don’t think she necessarily wanted us to figure it out. Divers is about departure, searching, longing, and regret; we will probably never know exactly what Joanna meant, yet that may be exactly what makes it so relatable.

The best place to begin describing Divers is with the second single, “Leaving the City.” As a whole, this single stood out as one of the approachable tracks that Newsom has made in recent memory. I think most apprehension people hold for Newsom stems from the enduring length of many of her songs, though the lyrical content is also tough to crack. (I won’t entertain the argument on her voice/intonation.) But “Leaving” is one of the most exciting tracks that Newsom has ever written. The story is a poem as fine-tuned and precise as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, each syllable and emphasis crucially important:

“the choruses have three different patterns that are interlacing. Those lyrics are somewhat simple, but they took me a really long time. They had to tell a story, but they had to incorporate these syntactic parameters. There was a straight-up chart I drew. I had to have certain rhymes that were there because they emphasized the downbeat of a contrary meter that was overlaid on the primary dominant meter of the song. Then there were contrapuntal syllabic emphases. Then there were the basic rhymes at the end of each line, which were anchor rhymes. And I needed that to happen in a way that said what we wanted to say.” (The Fader)

And what exactly did she want to say? She tells a story of a character fleeing from oppressors, though I think we have reason to believe that it is an internal conflict. On several other tracks she explicitly mentions running away because she fears what the city represents. The psychological deterioration that our protagonist endures also recurs through the instrumentation, in areas that Newsom strategically reprises throughout. One of the most obvious examples is evident in the grande finale, “Time, as a Symptom”: when she begins the verse “Joy! Again,” she uses the same complex structure as described above. That is an empowering stanza, every other syllable accompanied by a punch from a snare drum. The final few notes of this album are full of such life, it makes it difficult to internalize what amounts to a bleak description of afterlife: “… No time. No flock. No chime, no clock. No end. …”

But while this seems to spell certain doom, motifs of the circular nature of time follow close behind. One of the greatest moments on the album is the seamless transition from the end back to the beginning of the record. The album begins and ends on the same note, and Newsom even uses the same chirping samples that opened the record as integral parts of the final melody. Then the final word of the record wraps itself around in an endless cycle. More than a clever lyrical feat, this is symbolic.

I can’t help but take one song very literally in the context of Newsom’s life, and that’s her farewell to New York sung in “Same Old Man.” “I’m floating away on a barrel of pain,” she sings, “New York City won’t see me again.” This was not the only song with imagery of the big apple, a city that influenced Newsom in more ways than she had let on in her earlier work. She currently lives in LA, far enough away from NYC for her to reflect on her life there, which may have lent many emotions to “Leaving the City.” But her departure was as spiritual as it was physical.

This is Joanna Newsom’s most musically diverse album, featuring synths on one track and on another, guitar riffs that could have been ripped from Dire Straits’ Making Movies. Though I never see Newsom distancing herself from her harp, I can see an album mixed like Bjork’s Vulnicura in her future. Keep the full orchestra, but add Arca and The Haxan Cloak for some invasively emotional melodies. And if she continues to best even her own lyrical complexities, then anything is possible. For now though, Divers, is a beautiful and progressive addition to Newsom’s already impressive career.

Divers is not an album meant to fill you with confidence, though it may help you come to peace. When Newsom mentioned that each song asked the same question, she said nothing about finding the answer to that question. But like the journey over the destination, this album exemplifies the importance of asking the right question over discovering the right answer.

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