The allure of Joanna Newsom

Divers delivers a deeply woven celebration of life and death

Beyond the pedal harp: Divers adds physical drums, violins, electric guitar, and flute.
  • Beyond the pedal harp: Divers adds physical drums, violins, electric guitar, and flute.

Harpist, singer and composer Joanna Newsom is not everyone’s cup of tea. You may have to pause and look up a word just to glimpse her plane of thought. But that’s just part of Newsom's allure: She transports you to another time, puts you in a breathless reverie and sweeps you up into her stories of lost love and vast landscapes.

"Sapokanikan"

...off of Joanna Newsom's latest, <em>Divers</em>

...off of Joanna Newsom's latest, Divers

There are layers of meaning packed tightly within each song on her new album, Divers, and further research only unravels more secrets. The album is an emotional celebration of the sanctity of life and death and all of its regrets, described through shockingly vibrant imagery that Newsom has created amid often-delicate pastoral scenes.

Those who are already fans of Newsom’s complex work are familiar with her use of harp and other classical instruments. On Divers, her fourth album, Newsom, a California native, has added physical drums, along with violins, fiddles, electric guitar, and flute. She also blends soulful blues notes, psychedelic pop, Appalachian and country, and classical music, sometimes all in one song, but she’s just as comfortable letting her solitary voice and a bare piano or pedal harp do the work.

Although her songs are deeply woven, it’s still easy to fall into the album’s natural pace and trance. “Why is the pain of birth lighter borne than the pain of death?” Newsom asks on the title track, a heartbreaking ancient sea tale of a woman waiting for true love. On “A Pin-Light Bent,” Newsom romanticizes the story of a flight attendant’s fall from the sky, and the beauty she would have seen as she fell to earth. With the song composed of only her voice and the tense, repeating notes of her harp, deeply personal lyrics of the fragility of life are revealed. Comparing tiny, lit homes seen from high above to a mass of honeycomb is somehow gorgeous to imagine.

There are so many lines in Divers that are open to personal interpretation. Most of the time, though, it’s well enough to just let Newsom’s elegant language, the languid pace of each song, and her wondering voice wash over you.

  • Album: Divers
  • Artist: Joanna Newsom
  • Label: Drag City
  • Songs: (1) Anecdotes (2) Sapokanikan (3) Leaving the City (4) Goose Eggs (5) Waltz Of the 101st Lightborne (6) The Things I Say (7) Divers (8) Same Old Man (9) You Will Not Take My Heart Alive (10) A Pin-Light Bent (11) Time, As a Symptom

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