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New Music: Joanna Newsom

By Jason Herring, Nov. 3 2015 —

It’s been five years since American harpist Joanna Newsom released Have One on Me, but it’s taken nearly all that time to fully unravel that record — a poetic and meticulous odyssey that stretched over two hours. On Divers, Newsom scales down her music without sacrificing her characteristically intricate songwriting.

While Newsom’s past releases relied heavily on harp, piano and harpsichord to craft detailed and dreamy atmospheres, she introduces an array of instruments like drums and electric guitar overdubs to the mix on Divers. ENT_JoannaNewsomCover

These additions enhance Newsom’s musicality and pack a heavy punch on tracks like “Leaving the City,” which details two lovers running away. Unlike the idealism that accompanies most tales of eloping couples, Newsom’s lyrics repeatedly refer to death and uncertainty as heavy rock instrumentation leaks into the track’s saccharine production.

Album highlight “Goose Eggs” employs the same tricks, but with a less clear interpretation. “What’s redacted will repeat, and you cannot learn that you burn when you touch the heat,” Newsom croons on the track, offering cryptic lines that are nonetheless poignant and moving.

Most of Newsom’s lyricism works in this way. Her words are poetry — they sound beautiful on their own, but reveal layers of meaning and emotion once they’re analyzed and digested. And since most songs feature continuous narratives, there’s an abundance of lyrics to work through.

Though many tracks feature fleshed-out instrumentation, Newsom’s signature sparse piano and harp arrangements show up throughout Divers. “Anecdotes” starts the album with a playful baroque feeling before adding emotional sweeping strings. And her harp has never sounded more delicate and beautiful than on the contemplative title track.

Some listeners might be turned off by Newsom’s distinct voice, a feathery soprano similar to that of Kate Bush. Though some of her vocal eccentricities have been toned down since her early releases, Newsom’s unusual voice can still be a roadblock for some listeners.

But if you can get past that, you’ll find a gorgeously produced album filled to the brim with unique arrangements and enigmatic lyricism and wordplay. Divers isn’t quite Joanna Newsom’s best, but it’s still a stunning release by a gifted songwriter.

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