I was a non-believer for a pretty long time. Joanna Newsom was an artist I just didn’t “get.” I was too busy being pretentious about Pavement in my younger years to really give her quirky, baroque complexities and off-kilter vocal style a chance. Hell, I even came around on liking Swans before her stuff clicked for me. Hopefully, my initial disinterest and naiveté may convince another skeptical listener to give Newsom’s new album, Divers, a shot.
Newsom definitely requires some patience of her listeners, not to mention a palate accustomed to outside-the-norm instrumentation. She’s long been upheld as an indie goddess, but her music exists far from the label’s general conventions. There are barely any guitars and, when there are, they’re in the background. The drums are spare, and she’ll always go for a traditional piano over a synth. She plays a harp, her voice indulges in nuances unique enough to almost go beyond the realm of mimicry, and her previous record, 2010’s Have One On Me, went a few minutes past two hours in length.
In other words, if you put her on a mix CD for someone whose only experience of “indie” up to that point was Death Cab for Cutie, they’d probably snap it in half or you’d at least get a “what the hell is this?” text. But, like so many other at-first-difficult artists or bands, once her stuff clicks with you, it sticks forever. She’s got the musical ingenuity to go from being a frustration to a favorite in one second’s worth of enlightening epiphany.
Divers may be the easiest album yet to bring about that epiphany. It’s certainly a bit less lengthy than its predecessor, but it’s also just a bit more accessible as a whole. The songs here remain unremittingly complex in their arrangements, but every element of those arrangements both possesses its own beauty and perfectly contributes to the overall aesthetic and atmosphere of any given track.
“Leaving the City” is the song for you if you’re on the fence about Newsom. It’s got clanging guitar riffs and a chorus that really rocks, all the while staying unapologetically within her own pedigree. This song gets pretty intense and does so while centering a lot of its instrumentation on a harp and a dulcimer. If you’re more in the mood for a ballad, “A Pin-Light Bent” is a softspoken and simple folk song you’d have a hard time critiquing without sounding like you’re actively looking for something to hate.
After five years, Divers proves Newsom is still capable of maintaining one of the most original voices in the world of music while constantly giving that voice new ways to speak. Each of her records sound like her learning to speak her language a little better, all the while helping us catch up on learning to speak it too. This is an album of remarkable consistency and sparkling beauty. If her music hasn’t clicked for you yet, listen to this record until it does.