Joanna Newsom // Divers
by Jeff Holland on October 27, 2015
Posted in: Album Review, Folk, Music
We, the human race, should be admired for our willingness to persist in our constant struggle against the realities of mortal existence. We’re highly practiced in fighting these realities, and yet we seem to perpetually lack any effective means of suppressing our fear of our own rapidly approaching demise, let alone digesting the idea that we will someday be completely forgotten, since we can leave no permanent trace on this tiny sphere of life wherein nuclear weapons are accumulating, oceans are rising, and the atmosphere is gradually baking us alive.
I’m not trying to depress you; I’m just pointing out that our impermanence is looming over us, and we haven’t been dealing with it all that well. The more modern our society becomes, the more fearful it becomes that something is about to go horribly wrong. And of course, things have indeed gone horribly wrong before.
Amid all this catastrophe, there are many who would like to be the hero. “Save the world” is their motto, and they come armed with all kinds of different weapons; with pen and paper, doctrine and dogma, guitar and microphone, et cetera, they almost always prove themselves incapable of even scratching the tip of the iceberg of their high ambitions. And most of the time, their worst fear is eventually realized: history forgets them. In “Sapokanikan,” the greatest song from California folk singer-songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom’s new album Divers, Newsom explores and observes the fall of the would-be hero, the commemoration of those few who succeed in being remembered as heroes (whether they truly deserve the title or not), and the weirdness of our obsession with being preserved.
My relationship with this song went through three distinct stages. In the first stage, I was bewildered by the song’s esoteric lyrics, as well as astonished by its beautiful complexity, and by Newsom’s unrivaled mastery of the baroque-pop genre. The second stage had me learning to play the song on guitar and obsessively trying to memorize the lyrics without understanding how Newsom’s obscure historical and literary references fit into the bigger picture of the song’s meaning. In the third and final stage, I realized (with some help from Genius annotations) that “Sapokanikan” laments the twisted, biased, and overall unjust way in which our society records the past. So many deserving people have been flattened by the bulldozer of history, while buffoons like Christopher Columbus and mass murderers like Genghis Khan stand tall and proud. In the words of Lord Acton, “Great men are almost always bad men.” Perhaps hindsight isn’t always as clear as we’d like to believe.
It’s evident that Newsom has thought deeply about history. She sings that Sapokanikan, a Lenape village that existed 400 years ago in the place where Greenwich Village now stands, “is sanded and bevelled, the land lone and leveled by some unrecorded and powerful hand.” There’s some righteous anger here, and some bitter sarcasm—of course we all know who the “unrecorded and powerful hand” was. But Newsom’s goal seems greater than a mere jab at the legacy of European colonists. She’s recording and immortalizing the name of Sapokanikan, a name which is unfamiliar to most people until they hear this song. In a small way, Newsom is righting a historical wrong. She’s introducing thousands of people to this piece of unrecorded history. She’s singing about the people who are truly gone, who don’t live on in anyone’s thoughts. “The causes they died for are lost in the idling bird calls,” she laments. It’s occurred to me that Newsom doesn’t use obscure references to be pretentious, but to immortalize the names of those who have been almost completely forgotten. This song is an ode to them, and to those who are still alive and are afraid of fading into obscurity.
Long before you begin to draw meaning from the powerful lyrics on Divers, Newsom will draw you into the album in other ways. Her voice is as quirky and folksy as ever, but perhaps more accessible than ever before. She sings melodies as complex as those of 2006’s sprawling, orchestral Ys, but with pop characteristics reminiscent of 2010’s Have One on Me. She still has the whimsical sparkle and rustic charm that defined 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, but she’s come a long way from the relatively plain song structure and instrumentation of the songs on that album. Of course, indie folk will never forget the gorgeous, almost childlike simplicity of “Sprout and the Bean” and “Peach Plum Pear,” but Newsom has moved on from pure folk music to more baroque tendencies, and since I don’t think she’s ever written anything more stunning than “Sapokanikan” before, I’m not complaining.
In terms of lyrical meaning, “Sapokanikan” is not even the most challenging song on Divers to decipher. That award goes to the opening track, “Anecdotes,” which centers around an allegory about birds and soldiers. It requires ornithological knowledge and an informed understanding of literature to even begin to understand this song’s lyrics, but the melody will still break your heart (especially at the end of the song). Newsom’s loyal fan base has provided annotations on Genius to help you peruse the obscure references with which she peppers her lyrics, should you be inclined to do so. But even those who can’t be bothered to delve into the lyrical intricacies will find lots to enjoy in every track on Divers. It’s one of those albums that you can listen through dozens of times and still discover new, delightful subtleties every time. Newsom does not half-ass anything, nor does she understand the concept of “filler.” Every song is a jewel.
In a recent interview with the LA Times, Newsom talked about how her involvement in the mixing process has increased over time, and how she felt from the outset that this album in particular needed to “become itself in the mix.” It makes sense, then, that the mixing on Divers sounds painstakingly precise. The extensive arsenal of orchestral, folk, rock, and pop instruments layers together perfectly, while Newsom’s powerful soprano voice floats on top with triumphant clarity. You can especially hear the importance of the mixing in moments such as the perfectly united countermelodies of piano and xylophone in the title track; the rich layers of horns over piano, harp, and a surprisingly groovy drum beat in the chorus of “Leaving the City”; and the gradual orchestral buildup and battle-cry ending of closer “Time As a Symptom.” The attention to detail in every moment of every song is almost overwhelming.
It’s worth noting that the harp, normally Newsom’s primary instrument, does not take center stage as often as it does on other albums. In fact, the piano is the central instrument on Divers much of the time. Newsom has never been exclusively a harpist, but on Divers she seems to be positioning herself as primarily a singer, songwriter, and master of ceremonies, a harpist second. She’s received a lot of attention for her unusual “quirk” of being a harpist while most singer-songwriters opt for the piano and/or the guitar; perhaps she wants to play down that quirk in order to draw attention to her singing and songwriting talents. If that’s the case, she succeeds, because those are the talents that shine through on this album. But those who miss hearing her harp virtuosity will be relieved to hear her exercise it on songs like “Leaving the City,” “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” “A Pin-Light Bent,” and the title track.
There’s so much more I could say about Divers, but I’d better stop myself. Instead, I’ll settle for a conclusive summary: It’s intricate, sophisticated, and beautiful, but it never succumbs to obnoxious prog-folk narcissism. The ear candy to be found in the harmonious layers of instrumentation and vocals, the poignant, imaginative lyrics, and the little subtleties hidden in every chord and every melody, all together warrant many, many repeated listens. This is Joanna Newsom’s strongest work to date, and one of the best albums of the year. If this album gets the lasting attention it deserves, she won’t have to worry about being forgotten and “lost in the idling bird calls,” at least as long as music as we know it lives on.
BEST TRACKS: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11
RIYL: Indie folk, freak folk, baroque pop, chamber pop, singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush
Divers is out October 23 on Drag City.
Jeff Holland is a freshman from Cleveland, Ohio. He hosts a low-key, chill indie show called “Mellow Melodies” from 10-11 AM on Tuesdays.