8 An Experience

"Listen to this disc and give yourself over to the journey from beginning to end. It is time well spent."

Joanna Newsom, harp and vocals; Drag City, 2015.

Storytelling in sound and color, words burnished with artfully meticulous mixes of orchestral splashes, Joanna Newsom’s latest Divers sends gentle tendrils to weave into our subconscious from the outset. Is it her elfin, resonantly nasal, off-beat voice? Is it the words we need to hear over and over to follow but still feel at a loss to make sense of? I imagine it is a combination of something approachable and familiar—the drum roll sneaks in, the harp blends to the piano, then to the electric guitar, banjo, musical saw, all firmly grounded in the western canon of song—along with the strange, disturbing, fairy-tale-cum-mystery of what I would call not just music, but an experience. Like unrequited love, she may bare her soul and allow us a glimpse inside, but Newsom somehow remains just out of reach, and that’s perhaps why we can’t stop listening.

Things begin in the forest; “Anecdotes” sets the bar for the sonic landscape, a patchwork quilt of color within a clear form. The piano and flute keep us grounded, the music builds just as we expect, but the places Newsom takes us sonically are a surprise and underscore the feeling we are walking through the woods dropping bread crumbs as we move.

Perhaps most haunting, the title track, “Divers,” feels ancient in its insistent, driving rhythm. There’s simplicity in the song. We feel like this is a troubadour-ess from the Dark Ages, but the orchestration is sophisticated with carefully combined sounds, including the timbre of her voice that can break your heart with one carefully placed quaver.

A favorite is “Sapokanikan” that bounces and twinkles—a flat-footed quasi boogie-woogie. Taking its name from the Native American village where Greenwich Village sits now, the song feels sepia-toned yet urgent in its calling of ghosts of the past.

Newsom told Rolling Stone she explores “the question of what’s available to us as part of the human experience that isn’t subject to the sovereignty of time.” Likewise in the “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” time-traveling soldiers end up fighting their own ghosts.

Newsom tells us “My life comes and goes” in “Pin-Light Bent.” Her childlike voice is tinged with a bittersweet huskiness; the harp never ceases as a web is spun around us. Time itself, something we can’t stop or understand, though her final comment, the song brings us back to the opening with birds singing: “Time is just a symptom of love.”

Take the time. Listen to this disc and give yourself over to the journey from beginning to end. It is time well spent.

A gracious nod to Ryan Francesconi, Mirabai Peart, and Newsom’s brother Pete for the rich orchestral sounds, and composer Nico Muhly whose spirit infuses the album.


About Author

For the past 10 years, Alison Young has turned her highly trained ear towards the latest and greatest releases as Harp Column's records reviewer. A professional flutist and radio host, she enjoys discovering new music as well as familiar music played in new ways and sharing with readers her points of view in colorful and exacting descriptions. You can email her at alisonyoungdj@gmail.com.

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