Genre: Indie Folk, Baroque Pop
Producer: Joanna Newsom
Released: October 23rd, 2015
To be honest, I am not that familiar with Joanna Newsom’s music. I know that her 2006 album Ys was basically every music media’s album of the year and is contractually obligated to appear on every ‘Best Of’ list possible ever since; and that she mainly dabbles in baroque pop, a genre characterized by the use of harps, clavichords and other instruments that went out of fashion roughly at the same time with the black plague. Apart from those two things Newsom’s fourth studio album Divers was a complete jump into unknown waters for me.
Despite Newsom’s reputation as a harpist the songs are very piano-driven; her main instrument is largely a background element. The production is lush and clean, and despite the impressive amount of different keyboards and synths no instrument drowns another out, which really showcases Newsom’s skills not only in her playing ability, but also for her writing prowess. The album is full of beautiful melodies and creative compositions that somehow manage to be overflowing and tasteful at the same time. The latter half of the album doesn’t quite match the beauty of the first half, but that’s like saying winning four millions in a lottery isn’t quite as great as winning five.
However, there is one But so big that it could probably inspire Sir Mix-a-Lot to produce another hit single, and that is Newsom’s vocal style, which could nicely be described as ‘an acquired taste’. Her singing voice, while technically impressive, is so unbelievably nasal it sounds like she accidentally inhaled the ghost of Amy Winehouse up one nostril and one of Alvin’s chipmunks in the other. This is a shame, as her lyrics are absolutely delightful, full of overly complex rhymes, auxiliary alliteration and obscure references to anything from H.P. Lovecraft short stories to Victorian poetry and theories of physics. Overall the lyrics all seem to tangled around the theme of time: the opening track “Anecdotes” ponders how meaningful events fade into meaningless stories; “Sapokanikan” expands the theme to remind the listener how nothing lasts forever. “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” is a sci-fi story about a time-travelling fleet essentially fighting their own past selves. The theme is examined from all angles and tones from witty and whimsical to downright depressing. The singing makes closer listening to the lyrics feel arduous, but rewarding; like someone scraped your face with a cheese grater, but was also considerate enough to pay you handsomely for each individual scratch. To be fair, her vocalization fits the music, and the scraping softened towards the end; after multiple listens I found myself slowly growing accustomed to her voice. Maybe I just ran out of figurative tissue on my cheeks. Still, it is not a surprise that my least favourite track “Same Old Man” is basically only her voice accompanied by a lonely banjo.
Overall Divers left me with a very positive impression. Newsom’s musical and lyrical output is so triumphant that it can’t be dampened even by her vocal delivery. Despite its shortcomings the album definitely sparked an interest towards her earlier discography. I wonder if there are any instrumental releases…