Nine years ago, Joanna Newsom released a record called Ys, and I proclaimed it the best album of 2006.
I’ve never regretted that decision. Some people thought I was kidding – that my lauding of this thoroughly out-there harp-driven fairy-tale fantasia sung by what sounds like a drunken 10-year-old must be a massive put-on. But I wasn’t joking, and I haven’t been joking since. Joanna Newsom is one of the most fascinating and singular artists to emerge in the last 15 years, and any time she has something to say, I’m happy to listen.
I absolutely get where her detractors are coming from, though. Newsom has a tendency toward the precious, and inhabits a whimsical lyrical universe all her own. She plays the harp, and writes songs with all the complexity of classical arias. And then there is that voice, which many cannot get past. I’ve grown to love it in all its cracked and loopy beauty, but it took me a while. Newsom is content to circle around the note she wants, wavering and breaking, if she’s conveying the right emotion. It’s an acquired taste, and at this point, I have well and truly acquired it.
Still, it’s an obstacle for many, so I can’t be too upset that Newsom’s genius remains a slightly less than universally accepted truth. It’s not easy for some of Newsom’s fans – my friend Mike sent me this bizarre article that paints every man who dislikes Newsom’s voice as a sexist who doesn’t want women to have nice things. While there is a great deal of sexism in music and music criticism, this feels like an overreaction to me. There’s no shame in saying that Newsom makes challenging, fascinating music that is simply not for everyone.
But my God, is it for me. Newsom’s fourth album, Divers, is out this week, and within 90 seconds of pressing play, I was in bliss. I’ve waited five years for these 52 minutes, and I was prepared to be underwhelmed. After the full-orchestra wonder of Ys and the grandeur of 2010’s triple album Have One on Me, Newsom’s just made a collection of 11 songs this time, some alone and some with a variety of collaborators. It may feel slight upon first glance, but Divers is phenomenal, a summation and a refinement of everything I love about Newsom.
Best of all, it’s a statement of confidence and comfort in what she does. There’s no attempt to ease you in, no stab at a pop song or an accessible number that you won’t have to listen to three times to fully comprehend. There’s just enough complexity to Divers, and just enough simplicity to leaven the mix. These songs are grand and wide, and Newsom works in a cornucopia of colors here. Everything sounds like her, but there are surprises in every track, and a sure-footedness that leaves me in awe. Newsom sounds like no one else on earth here, and she grasps her own uniqueness and enjoys it.
If you’ve heard the single, the dense and tricky “Sapokanikan,” you know another piece of good news: while Newsom smoothed out her voice for Have One on Me, seemingly taming it for mass acceptance, she’s returned to her natural sound here, once again enlisting Steve Albini to record it as it happens and leave all the wavery notes in. And man, I missed it. Listen to how she chews on the line “I believed our peril was done” at the start of “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne.” That’s Joanna Newsom. It’s so wonderful to hear her embrace that unusual voice again.
Divers finds Newsom alternating between telling stories and baring her soul. Widescreen opener “Anecdotes” is as impenetrable a narrative as she has ever offered: “We signal Private Poorwill when morning starts to loom, pull up from your dive, till we hear the telltale boom too soon, hotdogging loon, caught there like a shard of mirror in the moon…” The music is utterly stunning, particularly the back half, and Newsom’s string arrangements pristine. “Sapokanikan,” named after one of the few villages on Manhattan Island that predates European settlers, is a dark fable, its lyrics contrasting with Newsom’s sing-song melody. Like “Anecdotes,” this song unfolds in its second half, Newsom harmonizing with herself as the music rises and rises.
But she gets nakedly emotional in the album’s second act. Sparse lament “The Things I Say” spins out on a web of mournful harp notes: “If I have the space of half a day, I’m ashamed of half the things I say, I’m ashamed to have turned out this way and I desire to make amends…” The seven-minute title track is a glorious intertwining of harp and piano, both by Newsom, supporting one of her very best tunes. “I’ll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life, and ever hold my breath till I may be the diver’s wife,” she sings. In the midst of these sweeping pieces, she offers some simpler folk numbers, like the down-home “Same Old Man” and the almost-bluesy “Goose Eggs.”
For my money, though, it’s the home stretch that contains Divers’ best songs. “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” is a beautiful bit of defiance, Newsom’s harp dancing off of her Mellotron flourishes, her voice swooping up and floating back down like a feather. “A Pin-Light Bent” is the only song featuring just harp and vocals, and it’s a dark yet whimsical journey: “My life came and went, short flight, free descent, poor flight attendant…” And the extraordinary closer “Time, As a Symptom” is a slow and stunning crescendo, building (with the help of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) to joyous levels. Newsom takes death head on in this song, sweeping aside the sorrow of the previous numbers in favor of the unbowed and the unbroken: “Love is not a symptom of time, time is just a symptom of love, and of the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life…”
Those 14 minutes, from “You Will Not Take My Heart” to “Time,” are almost unbearably emotional, and among the finest 14 minutes of the year. That’s not to discount the other pleasures of Divers, certainly, but my heart belongs to those final three songs. They send this fine, fine record out on the highest of high notes, and have all but secured it a place among my very favorites of 2015. Joanna Newsom is a singular artist with a singular vision, working on a canvas all her own, creating achingly beautiful and utterly magical work. I know it’s not for everyone, but I feel bad for those who can’t feel what she’s doing here, can’t revel in the fact that such wonder exists. I wasn’t kidding in 2006, and I’m not kidding now. Joanna Newsom is amazing.
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Speaking of women with unique voices, I finally heard Bjork’s Vulnicura.
Yes, I know. Yes, it came out in January. Yes, I bought it then. (Well, actually, in March when the physical CD was released.) No, I didn’t listen to it then. It has been sitting in a pretty large pile of 2015 albums I still haven’t heard. No, there’s no reason for it. I just didn’t get to it until now.
And yes, everything you’ve heard is true. The record is a heartbreaker. Detailing the Icelandic songstress’ recent wrenching breakup, even to the point of setting certain songs weeks before or after said breakup, the record is easily the most emotionally potent thing Bjork has released in many years. It also heralds a return to her Homogenic sound, marrying electronic beats and whirrs to full string arrangements. Many moments here are almost physically beautiful, taking shape in the room and changing the feel of the air.
Some parts of Vulnicura are almost too intimate, particularly “History of Touches,” which details her last night with her lover, and “Black Lake,” which finds her almost on the edge of suicide. So much of it is so painful that when she sings “love will keep us safe from death” on “Notget,” you know she truly means it. After three albums full of abstractions, Vulnicura is almost too real, too straightforward. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I wish I had heard it before now.
Vulnicura is also vying for a spot on my top 10 list now. There isn’t much coming out in the next two months that will likely challenge what we already have. (I would have considered Mutemath’s Vitals a contender, before hearing four middling songs from it.) Chances are I’ve heard my 10 favorites at this point, but my mind remains open. We shall see.
Next week, slow tunes from Beach House, Vanessa Carlton and the Innocence Mission. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.