#11. Joanna Newsom: Divers

#11. Joanna Newsom: Divers

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Joanna Newsom described Divers as being about “what’s available to us as part of the human experience that isn’t subject to the sovereignty of time.” It’s a lofty concept and would be a daunting undertaking for many musicians. Luckily, Newsom isn’t like most musicians. The Californian harpist’s sound is hard to classify as a single genre, but it leans towards a flavor of baroque pop that’s almost Celtic in nature. She possesses a gusty voice with a spritely, creaking timbre. Her lyrics are allegorical poems and expansive histories.

Perhaps the most fantastical lyrics on Divers come from “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne.” Newsom spins a Wellsian sci-fi tale about a battalion of time-traveling soldiers over pianos, accordions, and penny whistles. Her harp takes a backseat to the piano here, but elsewhere it’s the focal point of entire compositions. On “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” rubato glissandos swirl around her voice as she sings, “each hour I ever loved must queue and dive.” The title track’s introductory harp ostinato sounds like an angelic cover of McCoy Tyner’s “Motherland” before silky falsettos take the reins to sing about a marriage shaken by the effects of time.

The central conflict of Divers—time versus love—is highlighted on its lead single, “Sapokanikan.” Its compositional structure alone is enough to make your jaw literally drop (something I can personally attest to). Harmonically, it wanders away from its key, frequently retonicizing before resetting to the original key at the start of the next phrase. Its melody is melismatic, nimbly darting between shifting tonal centers. Just when you start to gain your footing, its time signature permanently changes. All this happens as Newsom sings about Ozymandian effacement while she references everything from Percy Shelley to Tammany Hall. Burial grounds beneath Washington Square Park and painted-over works by Van Gogh and Titian are sung about as palimpsests that suggest time’s inevitable erasure of everything. But then she brings up another painting by Arthur Streeton. Originally a nude of an old lover, he too painted over his work, but an etching of her name—Florry Walker—remains present even in the new painting. Newsom uses this to imply that love might be the one thing that can transcend time.

This is all corroborated by the thesis of Divers, presented on closing track “Time, As A Symptom.” Amidst piano accompaniment and recordings of bird calls, Newsom sings “love is not a symptom of time / time is just a symptom of love.” This line is the crux of the album, and summarizes the theme of most of its songs. In one final gesture towards love’s ability to transcend time, Newsom ends the album repeating a phrase that ends with the word “transcend.” The final utterance gets clipped short, crying “trans—!” as unison strings fade to silence and a morning dove coos in the background. Listeners with the album on repeat will notice as it starts over again that the first song begins with a fade-in of those exact same strings, accompanied by the coo of that same morning dove, as Newsom sings the first line: “Sending the first scouts over…” The combination of the album’s last and first words creates the word “transcending,” and folds Divers into a Möbius strip that itself defies time in its own way. It’s little gestures like this that make Divers not only an enjoyable collection of recordings, but an intellectually crafted piece of art that’s as cohesive as it is impressive. 

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