Joanna Newsom - Divers

Released October 23, 2015

By Joe Gibson (Send direct comments to the reviewer @ joegibsonauthor@gmail.com)

I love Joanna Newsom, and I wanted Divers to be her masterpiece, everything she's done well before synthesized into something truly groundbreaking. Unfortunately, it isn't. While Divers is a condensed version of her previous albums in every sense of the word, there's nothing on it that reaches the heights of what's come before. Welcome to the Greatest Hits era... Nothing new here, just a good serving of Newsomisms.

After years of releasing critically lauded albums, Newsom has been awarded the luxury of time in crafting this album, her fourth overall. According to Newsom, Divers was 5 years in the making, with years spent contemplating song arrangements alone.The small track listing is a welcome scaling back from her previous attempt at making one of the longest albums ever -- 2010's triple album, Have One On Me.

On Divers, Newsom is credited as producer, though she is helped behind the mixing board by Steve Albini (producer of Nirvana's In Utero and member of Big Black) and Noah Georgeson (solo artist and frequent collaborator with Devendra Banhart), both of whom have worked with Newsom on past albums. In this sense, Newsom is surrounding herself with tried and true collaborators. On the other hand, she has also brought in some outside help for the arrangements, including Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, Nico Muhly and Ryan Francesconi. But instead of really soaking up any influences from her collaborators, it sounds like everyone has entered Newsomland.

Newsom's voice is her most defining feature. If you are reading this, you are probably already familiar with it. Her voice is, as ever and as it should be, at centre stage on this release. Newsom's arrangements, however many collaborators she's working with, never seem to veer too far from the Van Dyke Parks influence that has been a part of her sound since her first album, 2004's Milk-Eyed Mender (Parks also arranged and produced most of Newsom's songs on her second album, 2006's Ys). All fine and good, as I love Van Dyke Parks, but over 10 years into her career, this is safe territory for Newsom.

On Divers, each tune feels more realized and fleshed out than any on Have One On Me. One would certainly expect that to be so, considering the time put into this album. Here she throws in some countrified guitar bending (“Goose Eggs”), and several different keyboard sounds to accompany her accomplished harp and piano playing, which gives the album some subtle dynamics and variety. Yet, after a few listens, my favourite song is still Sapokanikan, maybe because it recalls the best moments of Have One On Me, particularly Good Intentions Paving Company (my favorite Newsom song). Sapokanikan is the only melody that really sticks after repeated listens.

What's more, even with all the bells and whistles, dulcimers and wind-chimes, most of these songs seem rather typical for Newsom. They're beautifully played and sung, and ornate in their arrangement, but not especially memorable. This album is the sound of an artist distilling what's come before, not forging ahead into uncharted territory. For the most part, she's done it all better before.

Lyrically, the album is full of whimsically surreal imagery. It's at times evocative and atmospheric, but it can also come off as contrived and overly ambiguous (there's a lot of jewels, geese, horse riding and Great wars). It's true, it's usually the music, the sound, that really transports and moves you on Newsom's albums, not her lyrics. That's fine... but in the middle of the title track, one of the album's most dense and romantic songs, Newsom sings, “I ain't saying that I loved you first, but I loved you best”, and it cuts deeper than anything else around it (perhaps it's the line's similarity to Cat Steven's classic tune The First Cut is the Deepest, that made it to stand out to me). After hearing it, I can't help but wish she would cut the fantasy and deliver something more relatable.

If the album ever truly falters, it's with Same Old Man, a reworking of the traditional folk song Old Man in the Mill. It's an okay version, but I can't really understand what it's doing on the album. Maybe Newsom is trying to work in some of her folk roots. It's cool to introduce this type of music to those unfamiliar with classic Appalachian folk,  but there are countless better versions of the same tune (look up The Dillards or Ian Matthews), and with only 11 songs in 5 years, a cover song kind of feels like filler.

When I listen to Divers, I get the feeling that Newsom is consciously trying to give the listener an overview of her past triumphs. It's like she's trying to make a greatest hits, but with all new songs. This is, in a way, a sign of maturity. Many artists, after over a decade of success, look back at their strengths and attempt to give the listener a representative survey of their emotional dynamics and sonic scope. Many albums that are awarded the somewhat dubious, mythic and elusive Best Album of All Time title, come from artists who have been lucky enough to reach some kind of creative maturity, roughly 10 years into their career. At about 10 years, the artist or group has a better understanding of their own work. They have gone through the first album where everything is new and faults are forgiven as growing pains. The focus at this stage is on the potential. Next comes the experimental phase, the rebellious and carefree years (Think Ryan Adams, circa 2005). Take a look at Newsom's own discography, and see how it follows this structure. There's the promise of Milk-Eyed Mender, the bold experimentation of Ys, the carefree indulgence of Have One On Me, and now, in what should be her career peak, the distillation of all these albums into her most accessible release yet, we get Divers. Her attempt at an Abbey Road, that feels more like an over produced collection of B-sides left off her previous albums.

Based on the early reviews of the album, it looks like another critical favourite, but I can't say if it will really broaden her audience in any significant way. On the other hand, I'm sure Newsom's name will spread little by little as the years go by.

Along with the new album, Newsom has released two music videos, both directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Inherent Vice). This collaboration makes a lot of sense. Not only did Newsom appear in, and narrate Inherent Vice, but Anderson is kind of the film equivalent of Newsom. Both are critical darlings and well-known to any one who follows year end lists. They both have stable and consistent careers. More importantly, they both share a similar audience. But again, the collaboration sounds more interesting than it actually is. The videos are either Joanna walking through the city, or Joanna standing in front of the camera with some dream-like clouds and trees around her. Instead of a bold statement from two artists at their peak, it feels off-the-cuff and merely cute.

The modern day Kate Bush? The modern day Van Dyke Parks? Maybe not... just more of the same Joanna Newsom.

Let's hope we don't have to wait another 5 years for the next one.

www.dragcity.com/artists/joanna-newsom