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Review: Joanna Newsom Doesn’t Need a Triple Lindy to Make a Splash on ‘Divers’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 23, 2015
Label: Drag City

In the five years since Joanna Newsom released her most recent masterpiece, the triple-album Have One on Me, her absence has been greatly felt within the alternative landscape. Her uniqueness derives from her voice — with its signature timbre that evokes youthfulness and world-weariness simultaneously — as well as her writing style, plucking references from history and mythology without ever diluting the emotional message that foregrounds her songs. While there has been no shortage of excellent indie-folk albums from artists this decade (notably Angel Olsen’s Burn Fire for No Witness and Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse), no one has been able to quite capture the beguiling and singular approach of Newsom, with her winding, involved stories and ability to sound both completely out of time and remarkably current at once.

Never one to remain stagnant, Newsom surprises now by subverting expectations and releasing her most traditional album yet. Neither a sprawling two-hour epic nor an intimidating opera broken into suites with tracks running past ten minutes like 2006’s Ys, Divers finds the 33-year-old singer-songwriter operating within standard track lengths for an album that, while less grandiose than her previous work, is no less ambitious. Structurally closest to her debut, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, Divers sets itself apart by expanding into new genres and replacing the whimsy of her earlier material with maturity and solemnity.

Divers largely abandons the classic rock and jazz-standard sound that pervaded Have One on Me, but in turn wades into foreboding prog-rock solos (“Leaving the City”), leisurely Americana-inspired guitar riffs (“Goose Eggs”), and Eastern-tinged staccato harp-playing (the title track). Working with Nico Muhly and Dave Longstreth (of Dirty Projectors), Newsom’s arrangements here are less ornate than before, often sticking with a sparse, acoustic approach where she once would have employed swelling strings.

What disarms most about Divers is its accessibility. While that may sound misleading for an album with a lead single inscrutably titled “Sapokanikan” (that opens with the line “The cause is Ozymandian” to boot), it requires less effort to engage with than anything else in her discography, for better or worse. Those looking for a more demanding work might be put off initially, but the move may help to persuade longtime naysayers to give it a chance.

Beyond the adjustments in style and arrangements, Divers benefits from a palpable sense of urgency and energy that offers a change of pace from her earlier output. Tracks like the aforementioned “Leaving the City” climb toward thunderous climaxes as Newsom towers with a disquieting presence, stretching her syllables to step in tune with the whirlwind of guitars. The final track, “Time as a Symptom,” builds steadily before plunging headfirst into a thrilling final act, which finds Newsom breathlessly keeping up with the rising orchestration before both the music and her voice cut out seemingly mid-thought. This dramatic approach doesn’t define the entire record, a varied effort that still makes room for more languid songs such as the serene opener of “Anecdotes” or the forlorn piano ballad “The Things I Say.” An overall sense of immediacy pervades here, offering a touch of chaos to an artist traditionally known for her calming presence.

On its face, Divers may be the lowest-stakes record she has made, but even an easily digestible album from Newsom is more complex and involving than most of her contemporaries. The goals aren’t as lofty as before, but by streamlining her sound, she is able to hit with some of the most direct and powerful songs of her career, especially “You Will Not Take My Heat Alive” and “A Pin-Light Bent,” the standout pairing that winds down the proceedings. Over a decade removed from her last attempt at a traditionally structured record, Newsom has perfected something else anew: grounding her sharp sense of growth and experimentation within a conventional framework.