Known for her distinct voice, Joanna Newsom has earned a cult following of adoring supporters who laud her for her skills as a virtuosic harpist, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer. Before the musician travels to Detroit on Tuesday, December 15 for a concert at Royal Oak Music Theater, we wanted to review her latest release.
Divers, released in late October by Drag City, is Newsom’s exciting and hotly anticipated record. This new offering was certainly worth the wait. Newsom’s releases are always spaced several years apart, but are always honed and perfected works of undeniable and distinctive depth. Divers is no exception. Newsom combines and coalesces the sounds and influences of her previous releases into something far greater than the sum of its parts.
To a great depth
Divers is instrumentally eclectic, constantly cycling through a changing lineup of disparate and sometimes clashing sounds. For example, the record features extensive use of a variety of synthesizer textures, as well as bluesy electric guitar licks subtly sewn into the fabric of certain songs. Some of these elements are a bit unexpected and occasionally clash, but overall the dense and diverse instrumentation works. Newsom’s harp and piano playing weave in and out of dense layers of sound in a seamless and ethereal tapestry. From a purely production and instrumentation oriented point of view, this record is lush and beautiful. Newsom breathes life into the gorgeous instrumental arrangements with her signature high-pitched, oracular, siren-like, melodious vocals. Every note Newsom sings paints a vibrant picture and evokes the most ancient essence of storytelling.
All of the songs on Divers are steeped in Newsom’s lyrical brilliance. Each song is woven with her mesmerizing and evocative lyricism which carries the timeless and uncanny quality for which her songs are known and loved. The songs unfold with dense, flowing, often difficult to absorb lyrics, which are punctuated with moments of intense emotion and raw honesty. There are times when the lyrical delivery is so dense that it can be difficult to understand or the vocals are drowned out by the equally dense instrumentation. However, the emotional impact of this record is immense and personal. Newsom has a knack for writing lyrics which express the most indescribable truths of the human soul in tangible form. This record has the power to make you laugh, cry, and laugh while crying.
A contrast in time
None of the songs on this record reach the same imposing length as some of Newsom’s other releases. She is known for her sprawling compositions which approach nearly twenty minutes in length on the album, Ys. The longest piece on this record is the title track which is just over seven minutes. The songs are much more concise and reigned in, but lack none of the beautiful instrumentation or deep poeticism. In comparison to Newsom’s other releases, Divers is less sprawling but every bit as mythological. In this sense, it has some of the maturity and focus of her record, Have One on Me. By the same token, Divers is also very evocative of her early release, Milk Eyed Mender. In many ways this album simultaneously brings together and transcends all of the prior stages in the evolution of Newsom’s sound.
Though Divers has a couple negligible flaws, it is nonetheless another fantastic addition to Newsom’s impressive discography. Listening to this record is an intense experience and a journey. Some of the lyrics are occasionally too dense to follow and certain aspects of the instrumentation seem jarring or out of place. Despite these shortcomings, Divers is a heartfelt, polished and memorable masterpiece.
Joanna Newsom will perform at 7pm Tuesday, December 15 | $29.50-$49.50/in advance, $35-$55/at the door | Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. 4th St., Royal Oak | 248-399-2980 | royaloakmusictheatre.com