I heard Joanna Newsom before I had even heard her voice – let me explain. Many years ago, I was given a mix CD from a friend which has a song by Final Fantasy called “Peach, Plum, Pear” which soon became a staple of my various playlists ever since. It is one of my favourite tracks and it was not till much later that I found out it was a cover by the lady Newsom, so I naturally went looking for the original song. The difference was stark as the Final Fantasy version was a violin piece, the original was done to the sound of a harpsichord and I was not expecting that voice. It is one of the most unique vocals I had heard outside of Bjork and Kate Bush (who she is sometimes compared to). It is one of those moments in modern music that changes the game and it still breaks my heart all these years later. Which brings us to her latest album, ‘Divers’ which is her fourth studio effort. This is a self-produced effort which does have Steve Albini’s name on the credits for recording the album – that is a strange mix of names, but one that tickles me. This album is making the press as people are saying it is the top alternative album of 2015, which is in all fields which is a big burden for any album before you have heard it. It is not that I think Ms Newsom is not up to the job of making a jaw dropping album, I just think that sometimes it is better to get the surprise yourself without it being plastered across the cover of every magazine. So can it live up to the hype or is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
Starting this album is “Anecdotes” and we are in familiar territory with Ms Newsom here as she sounds as it is a beautifully constructed piece of baroque/art pop that feels as if it is a vintage track from the very beginning. It opens the album with a big idea of time, something that becomes one of the major themes of the album with the help of various orchestra instruments to support her words, harp and piano. The lyrics are still are strange as ever, it is all open to various interpretations and you can make up any meaning behind the songs. With a voice this unique, you find yourself comparing to other individual vocalists; but this is a stirring number that grabs the listener. You have to be patient with it as it does take a few moments to get into the song itself, but it is well worth it as it grows with each listen. “Sapokanikan” is another dreamscape number, sounding like a fairy tale being given musical form in a way that was made popular in the 70’s and 80’s – but it feels timeless and has a folk-Eastern European flavour to the song. It is sparse in place, just Ms Newsom and her piano/keyboard which are my favourite sections of this song. The song as a whole is something that you can easily get lost in with ease, it is really a stunning number that gives the mind licence to fly. “Leaving the City” starts with a plucking of strings as the road comes out in front of the listener, it has a mixture of strings, electric guitar, piano and more string instruments than you can throw a cat at. If feels as if it is going to fall apart in places, sometimes there is so much going on that it losses focus on for me and becomes slightly too messy. But it is not without interest, just slightly shambolic in the chorus. The fourth track is called “Goose Eggs” which seems to be a tale of regret and unspoken yearning to be something more for someone who requires more of a person. Once again, there is places where the styles are mixing and being formed into a new form – there is a country style being added into the folk here. But unlike “Leaving the City” it does not sound as if it is going to fall apart at the seams and it all comes together to make another strange, fascinating and out of the box song which also reminds me of Dire Straits in places with the guitar tone.
“Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” starts off with Ms Newsom and a piano as she laments the passing of an army after three successful campaign. It comes across as a sombre number that combines a lover’s tale and an alternative history. The mix is strange once again in places and it could have been stripped back in places as sometimes there is a few too many instruments coming into play at once. Yet this does not change the overall impression of the song, as it is an interesting number that keeps your attention and will be going through your mind long after it has finished. “The Things I Say” sounds like a confessional to oneself about the strange things that come out when you sometimes need to keep something under the surface. It is a lesson which can be learnt (especially by myself in places), it is a short number which is for the most part just Ms Newsom and the piano which is when I find Ms Newsom to be at her best. Part of me thinks in could have been extended and that the noise/feedback/reversing ending was spot on – but these are just the opinions of a man on the other side of the Atlantic. Next is the longest song on the album and the also the title track of this record – “Divers”. With the sound of a harp that is repeating a falling rhythm, the song slowly starts to form as the tale of love and time passing comes into the world. It is a seven minute plus song, so it is one that needs attention and it demands it. It has an oriental & nautical theme to the music which has a fluid movement to these ears. I can see what it is the title track of the album, it plays to all of her strengths with its smaller selection of instruments in the song and it is certainly one of the strongest songs on the album. “Same Old Man” is the only song on the album which is not an original piece by Joanna Newsom, it is her interruption of a very old song which has also been covered by Mark Lanegan recently. It is a curious piece that is well performed, but it does not like it is part of the album – you can tell it was not hear song as it does not share her style, but that does not stop it being a good song.
“You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” is a song which discusses the passage of time (a constant theme for this album) and how the constant driver of her life will not take her heart alive. The music uses many effects on two synthesizer (a Mellotron M400 and a Juno 106). It is another piece that really has its heart set in the musical leanings of ages long lots to the world, where the bard was a kingpin (or in this case a queenpin) in the court of a ruler, it is those wonderful progressive patterns that she uses, mixed in towards the end with various electronic noise that make this song one of the strongest on the album – it is not one of the grandest, but the simple approach to the old father is one that melts your heart. We have now reached the penultimate number of the album with “A Pin-Light Bent” which is wonderfully reflective, it is down to Ms Newsom on vocals and the harp and Dan Cantrell on the saw (I love the fact that this has someone playing a saw on it – very old school). We are invited to reflect on the frailty of the human experience as it is all too brief and it is over before you know it. It is very beautiful, fragile and (if we are honest) it has a sadness to its being that we must face and endure at certain parts of our lives. It reminds me a bit “Peach, Plum, Pear” with a bit of a melancholy, but it is a stand out track on in its own right and the fragile nature of the song is beautiful. The find track is called “Time, As A Symptom” with uses a sample of doves using “Mourning Dove - Zenaida Macroura" which was recorded by William R. Fish and is used with permission for the copyright owners, it also features The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and drummer Peter Newsom. It starts very quiet and builds up with the revelation that time is actually a product of love and not of heartbreak, it is a sweet sentiment and with the bird sound used throughout the song it has a natural feeling and as the orchestra comes in to the song it builds towards a beautiful finale as this album is brought to its beautiful conclusion.
As an album this is by definition one that will mostly appeal to her audience and fans of the most off the track pop music than your average mainstream music fan, which is something that I am sure will not bother Ms Newsom one iota. It is by design a niche album which is a piece of work that is for fans of the strange, interesting and beautiful. Her voice is as unique as Bjork, Kate Bush and Tori Amos and it has mellowed out from those first albums to become mature and has subtle moment which she would not have necessarily contemplated earlier on in her career. It is well crafted and she does attempt something different with a songs that are outside of her usual comfort zone – “Leaving the City” & “Goose Eggs” – which has mixed results, but trying a new idea is always a positive to see. Being a self-produced album, I usually wonder if it would have benefited from an outside ear to the sound (unlike when it is a multi-produced album with three or more people producing it, it usually turns out that they tend to have too many cooks at the pot) – however on this occasion I think that producing herself was the right decision as she is a singular artist. Is it the number one album of the year? Maybe not for me personally, but it is certainly one of the best albums and at the very least, one of the more interesting records of 2015.
8 out of ten - Oh, now you have my attention and maybe my money, time and heart
Top track - You Will Not Take My Heart Alive
You can purchase Divers from Amazon here
You can visit her artist page on Drag City Records here (there is another website, but it is just a page that links to Amazon to purchase her last album - Have One On Me
Here is a link to a community page on Facebook (which has not been updated since 2010) - not a criticism, just stating a fact
Joanna Newsom is not a fan of streaming services, so I cannot place any links so you can stream the album - again this is not a criticism, just stating a fact; it is refreshing to find an artist that is not willing to change her beliefs and I respect that.