“Sending the first scouts over back from the place beyond the dawn” So begins Divers, the fourth album from the American folk musician Joanna Newsom, with a vision of movement into the unknown. It is, at first glance, a very restrained departure from her previous efforts, with all of the expected tropes still intact - Newsom’s harp still leads the now-slightly-shorter compositions and her voice still retains its famed unconventionality. But what is established here is an unprecedented fullness; a Joanna Newsom album has never sounded so studio-processed, nor has one ever sounded so consistent.
Whereas earlier albums have traded on painstakingly created moments, there is a single, cohesive vision here, without any obvious low points or, dare I say it, dull moments. It is an album of great variety too, with a plethora of original instruments, including birdsong, and tracks ranging from the loftiness of the opener ‘Anecdotes’ to the intensely personal tenderness of ‘Divers’, showing that, fourth time around, Newsom knows exactly what she is doing.
It’d be remiss not to point out the role Newsom plays as a lyricist. Perhaps her strongest single attribute, this album follows the steady incline in quality from those that came before. Still, this is not to say her lyrics don’t contain nods to earlier works - winding metaphors and obscure references remain present, still bound up in ambiguity. This time, though, there is a far greater sense of confidence and directness, and ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’, which features the title repeated over the final few minutes, could even stand as Newsom’s first attempt at a power ballad. It is certainly dangerous territory charted here but the level of authenticity and faith to where she came from shows she has achieved a definite degree of success.
Fourth time around Newsome is showing she knows exactly what she is doing
To draw a criticism out of this is highly subjective, but one could see in Divers (as well as the rest of her work) too much of a sprawl. This is, after all, music for daydreamers, meant for those who wish to be caught up within the essence of a song and carried through Romantic imagery and instrumental curveballs rather than contained within tight structures and repetition. However, the view of these detractors does hold some truth: songs such as ‘Leaving the City’ are dotted with such an abundance of instrumentals (the drums sound like a 90s rap instrumental) as to risk sounding overproduced. A live version from the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival displayed Newsom with all elaboration removed; as the lone musician on stage, with only her harp for accompaniment, it was such a pure, simple display of her musicianship as to make the album version seem a step down, with something vital lost in the process of adding so much in.
Divers does however remain a remarkably enjoyable album which rewards those who give more than one listen. The only question for the future is whether, after this progression and the doubtless success that will result, Newsom can retain the authenticity she communicates so clearly here. What I know, though, is that having hit such a stride of artistic maturity more is sure to come, and for now I’m content in thinking there’s still a lot to look forward to.