17 Nov 2015

Divers by Joanna Newsom

From The Sampler, 7:35 pm on 17 November 2015
Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom Photo: Annabel Mehra

Nick Bollinger consumes a complex set of chamber-pop from harpist extraordinaire Joanna Newsom.

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Joanna Newsom is an artist whose music has always rewarded immersion. The deeper you go, the more is revealed. And that’s absolutely the case with her new album, which appropriately enough, is called Divers.

Right from ‘Anecdotes’, the opening track, there’s a lot going on, as though we’re being shown a picture on a transparent surface and at the same time seeing all the layers behind it. The opening lines sketch scenes from a war; we see broken soldiers borne on horseback. But there are abstract forces moving alongside the physical ones, as Newsom simultaneously contemplates the progress of time, while the instrumentation gradually grows from a solitary harp to a full and rich orchestration. This is breathtaking stuff and it doesn’t let up in the tracks that follow.

Over the eleven years since The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom’s music has grown in sophistication, though that growth began early. By the time of her second album, Ys, she was already augmenting her harp, piano and voice with lush orchestrations, overseen on that record by the legendary Van Dyke Parks. She has used great collaborators on this album too; contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly for the orchestration of the opening track, and Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth for the closer, though the way the arrangements are so intrinsic to these compositions - the absolute Newsom-ness of them - suggests to me that these specialists worked very much under her direction.

Joanna Newsom’s Divers is as great a record as I expect to hear this year. With eleven songs packed into its 53 minutes, it’s neither as demanding as the 17-minute epics of Ys or the three-disc magnum-opus that was Have One On Me. And while it’s still a record that demands the old-fashioned ritual of listening, preferably on a good set of speakers, and without a cellphone in reach, it rewards that commitment many times over.

Songs played: Divers, Anecdotes, Sapokanikan, Leaving The City, Waltz of the 10st Lightborne, Goose Eggs