Joanna Newsom

Divers

Drag City

Oct 21, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Listening to traditional folk music, particularly from regions like the Appalachians or Catskills in times before and just after the Civil War, is like the best time machine you could envision. Moments of frightening specificity ("I dug your grave last night" from "Pretty Polly") combine with a general sense of lost love and melancholy ("Pretty Saro") to form a wholly realized snapshot of a setting that seems beyond time and place.

At her best, Joanna Newsom is capable of crafting those types of moments in her music. And her newest album, Divers, is a collection of those momentsmemories of the past, fantastic visions of the future, and eerily specific images combine into a cohesive whole to provide an intricate and moving experience. It's remarkable how old and lived-in this music seems. It's music you wouldn't be surprised to hear coming out of a cabin in 1851, or from a home in 2184 filled with people keeping the past alive through a venerable oral tradition.

The album stakes its claim to its timelessness on the first track, "Anecdotes." Over a sad tale of soldiers in a war trench (perhaps World War I) wishing for home and comforts, a flute and clarinet flit behind Newsom's bending reed of a voice. The song is orchestral enough that it wouldn't feel out of place on Ys, but retains some of the old-Americana feel of Have One on Me.  Opening singles "Sapokanikan" and "Leaving the City" continue the themes of juxtaposing the natural world with the urban world (particularly New York City), all set to a mishmash of instrumentation that nonetheless find their roots in American traditionalism.

"Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" is a jaunty waltz that is equal parts Appalachian folk song and sea shanty. You can imagine it being played around a fire or a kitchen tableas long as said table features lots of accordions. It's also yet another song set at wartime, putting Newsom in a long line of folk singers who sing about the experience of soldiers in battle. Newsom makes her link with traditional folk even more apparent in "Same Old Man," a spin on a traditional song that talks about how people have wanted to get the hell out of New York City for as long as songs have been written.

Divers is almost uniformly lovely to listen tothe piano interlude of "The Things I Say" and the title track both use Newsom's skill at imagery to paint pictures of love and longing. Closing song "Time, As a Symptom" is epic; as the song builds and builds, the lyrics and the music wrap around each other as brass flourishes bring the song to a powerful climax while Newsom sings repeating lyrics that suddenly cut off. It's a remarkable effect.

Divers demonstrates that Newsom's music lies somewhere outside of contemporary genre conventions. Sure, reviews can name-check Kate Bush or even PJ Harvey, but Divers' predecessors are more likely unnamed families sitting around the hearth, strumming and belting out the songs they'd learned from their great-grandparents. (www.dragcity.com/artists/joanna-newsom)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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