The fourth album from the prolific singer-songwriter is upon us.Drag City, 2015
6.8 / 10
Joanna Newsom is a busy performer. “Anecdotes”, the first song on her latest album, Divers, features more words than are in this entire review, and those lyrics get into some heavy-handed metaphors about existence and how our surveillance state has shown a light on the ultimate futility of it all, and even getting that far requires either an uncanny ear to make out what Newsom is saying given her word count and tendency to warble or a lyric sheet. This is poetry that requires a lot of work to engage with, and once I’m stuck parsing Genius to try to get a grasp for what an artist is trying to say, the music itself risks becoming secondary. And that’s just the first song.
It isn’t as though I can’t or am not willing to engage an artist on headier themes—I maintain that Jenny Hval’s Innocence Is Kinky is fantastic, and Prurient’s Frozen Niagara Falls is one of my favorite albums of 2015. I’ve always had a problem engaging with Newsom’s music, though, and while I can appreciate the effort and craft that went into making a polished album like this, this, like Ys and Have One On Me before it, inspires me to inspect it like a piece of hardware over art. It moves well, it spins well, it’ll get you where you need to go, it is worth market value. There’s no hook that leaves me wanting to inspect its meanings, and that’s ultimately the difference between Newsom’s art and headier art I find to be engaging.
For what it’s worth, there’s no part of me that is tempted to call Divers bad. It is self-impressed, pretentious, impenetrable, and wordy to a fault, but Newsom’s ear for composing remains her saving grace, and even as I was going frustrated with Newsom’s worst writing tendencies, I found myself enjoying her backing music well enough. If only Newsom would just pull back on her ambitions and remember that she’s supposed to be making this music for other people to enjoy.