Joanna Newsom’s fourth full-length, Divers, haunts you like an unanswered question. That’s what makes it so engrossing. You don’t listen to it to figure out what it means. You play it to revel in the mystery of the songs and who, exactly, is the marvelous, mercurial creature singing them.
Contradictions are central to Newsom’s character and also to her work. As an orchestral harpist whose lyrics read like Alfred Lord Tennyson poems, Newsom has been called an “outsider artist,” though she’s actually a best-selling singer-songwriter and minor movie star, thanks to her recent turn as a wise Earth mama in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. She’s often described as childlike, due to her lovely, elfin voice and her affection for fairy tales, but Divers comes from a highly sophisticated mind, with its complicated, polyrhythmic arrangements and lyrics that explore the nature of time. She’s a fan of avant-guard flourishes — check out the ghostly musical saw on “The Things I Say” — but many of her best tracks are rooted in accessible, old-fashioned American forms like ragtime (“Sapokanikan”) and Appalachian folk (“Same Old Man”). It’s serious music, but it can be surprisingly funny. In “Leaving the City,” a Celtic-curlicued goodbye letter to New York, she quips, “The longer you live, the higher the rent.”
The joy of Divers is that you can read it however you like, or you can refuse to read anything into it at all, preferring to losing yourself in a 52-minute rhapsody of MiniMoog, bouzouki, and Marxophone. Newsom told Uncut magazine that Divers was inspired by her own 2013 marriage to Andy Samberg, how “death stops being abstract, because there’s someone you can’t bear to lose,” and these meditations on mortality sometimes weigh too heavily, with images of drowned sailors and doomed Egyptian pharaohs that beg to be deconstructed in a grad-school dissertation. But you don’t have to Google the references to Ozymandias and Tamanend to appreciate the lyrics. Newsom just enjoys the way they roll off her tongue, and it’s contagious. “Too soon / hotdogging loon,” she coos on “Anecdote,” savoring every oooh. What does that mean? Does it really matter? It’s the sound of falling in love—maybe with a person, definitely with a song as strange and beautiful as this. A-