Harpist, singer and composer Joanna Newsom is not everyone’s cup of tea. On much of her catalog, you may have to pause and look up a word just to glimpse her plane of thought.
But that’s just part of what Newsom is so good at: She transports you to another time, puts you in a breathless reverie and sweeps you up into her stories of lost love and vast, desolate landscapes.
There are layers of meaning packed tightly within each song on her new album, “Divers,” and when you think you’ve figured it out, further research will only unravel more secrets.
But deciphering the whole of “Divers” is an endeavor far greater than can be squeezed into a review; suffice to say, “Divers” is an emotional celebration of the sanctity of life and death and all of its regrets, described through shockingly vibrant imagery Newsom’s created amid often-delicate pastoral scenes. It’s an incredible album.
Those who are already fans of Newsom’s complex work are familiar with her use of polyrhythms and classical instruments – she knew she wanted to learn the harp when she was 4 and hasn’t looked back.
Newsom often changes tempo and time signatures within lengthy songs, and her use of traditional instruments — pedal harp, harpsichord and flute — all lend to her classical style. She never sticks with that genre though, and is most well known as an indie/folk artist.
“Divers,” her fourth album, sees Newsom adding physical drums to her repertoire, along with violins, fiddles, electric guitar and flute. She also blends soulful blues notes, psychedelic pop, Appalachian and country, classical, ephemeral, and period-piece music into “Divers,” sometimes all in one song, but she’s just as comfortable letting her solitary voice and a bare piano or pedal harp do the work.
Although her songs are deeply woven, it’s still easy to fall into the album’s natural pace and its trance.
Songs like “Goose Eggs” and “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” have a country bent to them, whether it’s slide guitar, or a slow rolling melody, or hints of fiddle.
On “Goose Eggs” in particular, Newsom delves into more conventional pop/country/ chamber-pop music, even mixing in ‘60s psychedelic organ, displaying her broad musical agility.
Throughout “Divers,” Newsom weeps for the loss of time, and of mortality, then in the next measure will sing joyfully of transient life and its delicate beauty.
On “The Things I Say,” she laments how people keep their life “like a deck of cards,” keeping it safely packed away to use for a day that never actually comes.
On “Time, As a Symptom,” Newsom continues to speak of those “bleeding out their days in the river of time,” but through the chorus, reinforces the “nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.”
“Why is the pain of birth lighter borne than the pain of death?” Newsom asks on the title track, a heartbreaking ancient sea tale of a woman waiting for true love and knowing she might die without fulfilling that need. “I’ll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life,” she sings resignedly.
On “A Pin-Light Bent,” Newsom romanticizes the story of a flight attendant’s fall from the sky, and the beauty she would have seen as she fell to earth. With the song composing only her voice and the tense, repeating notes of her harp, deeply personal lyrics of the briefness and fragility of life are revealed.
“My life came and went/My life came and went /Short flight, free descent,” she sings sadly. Comparing tiny, lit homes seen from high above to a mass of honeycomb is somehow gorgeous to imagine.
There are so many things about “Divers” that’s open to personal interpretation. Much of the time, it’s well enough to just let Newsom’s elegant language, the slow pace of each song, and her wondering voice wash over you.