Reading reviews the first week of a new Joanna Newsom album is like watching freight trains fall over. No critical darling in popular music over the last 10 years invites more exhaustingly polar shades of adoration (overwrought purpleness on the one side) and contempt (clueless hissy fits on the other). Lotsa people love her, lotsa people can’t stand her, but what ties both the love and the hate together is bewilderment.
Fine by me, at least in theory! Visceral bewilderment is interesting. If an artist inspires lots of staunchly determined reactions on opposite sides, well, I’ve always figured those kinds of artists are probably doing something important! And yet… God, I just really wish people resisted the temptation to be radical with Newsom. Since the new album’s been out I’ve already read oodles of pieces calling Newsom anything from a peddler of mannered scenester bullshit to an architect of new musical standards for a generation. I even read one article that basically said that comparing Newsom to past singers of any kind is patriarchal, so singular is her approach. Lord knows, these days more than ever one of the only ways you can get anyone to pay attention to you is to pivot to extremes. Distaste for Newsom stems from obvious places: they hate the high childlike creaks of her voice and the long “pretentious” structures. As usual, there’s a defensiveness to a lot of the hate that caters to the Marxist approach to criticism first staked out in film by the French New Wave and carried on in popular music by first-wave rock critics, in which art is judged on the degrees to which it offends the (supposed) taste of the haute bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, this leads to plenty of otherwise very smart people like Robert Christgau panning Newsom’s second album because she was starting to make stuff that sounded like classical music, and those critics don’t know anything about classical music. Alas, sometimes even the smart people don’t want to do the work of acknowledging the talent it takes to organize the sounds that turn them off. (Even lots of pop listeners who don’t listen to classical music but claim to respect it can’t help but do so in backhanded ways, writing off whole fucking centuries of human expression with some variation of, “I need emotion, not just technique.”) To put it bluntly, people who truly hate Joanna Newsom’s music hate it because they know, even if they don’t wanna admit it, that they can’t brush it off as easily as they’d like.
And yet the adoration is perhaps even more despicable, patronizing to vague notions of Classical Music without demonstrating any real interest in finding out what a Schubert or Fauré song even sounds like. And I’m not really discounting myself from that category, either. Listening exclusively to classical music until high school, I can certainly tell Schubert from Fauré (beyond the obvious factor of language, I mean), even Fauré from Sibelius, but not Rameau from Couperin, to say nothing of young composers of the last 25 years like Caroline Shaw and Thomas Adès, both of whom Newsom (naturally) sounds closer to. But in terms of the post-minimalist classical world we’ve been inhabiting for decades now, I can’t tell a John Adams from a John Adams, and neither can most of the people making these heady comparisons in reviews of Newsom’s work.
My one-sentence opinion of Joanna Newsom is that I’ve liked her since I first heard her, she’s never made a bad album, and nothing she’s done since the first one has been nearly that good (although this new one probably comes closest). The Milk-Eyed Mender — I fucking love that record. In the nightmarish year of 2004, that debut was a quirky, casually sophisticated little miracle that provided the hideaway respite that so many classically-trained indie artists think they’re too good for. Newsom wrote and sang like an odd college kid, a studious millennial mystic type with a fondness for pastoral tone colors and harmonies. Lyrically, she’s always been the mooning type, but on Mender she’s also genuinely thoughtful and even profound about man’s place (or discomfort) in or among nature, the melodies downright breathtaking, kind and sweet and curious in turn without tempering quirkiness. And Newsom’s singing — which, for the record, has never bothered me — inflected words in a way that could snap your heart in two with the tiniest flicker or fade in her voice. The cover of the album looked like a piece of a child’s patchwork quilt stowed away under a cabin floorboard and discovered years later, and the music felt the same. Breaking through around the same time as Sufjan Stevens, the two artists didn’t actually have very similar compositional approaches and yet invited comparisons anyway: not only in their orchestral leanings (though the arrangements on Mender are spare) but also in the sense that these were clearly people who were raised in the religious art-school environments that, whatever else their esoterics led to, allowed them to tap into a specific cosmic melancholy, and in the musical and political climate of the mid-‘00s, “cosmic melancholy” seemed appropriate, y’know? Newsom and Stevens also attracted a lot of cynics who wrote their songs off as corny ironic hipsterisms, but closer listening revealed both as burningly sincere performers, albeit in their own boho niches.
The talk of “subverting expectations” is blabber, as Newsom’s albums follow a fairly logical and (indeed) savvy trajectory: (1) quirky but humble debut; (2) long suites playing up the poetic and orchestral ambitions; and (3) longer whole one where she mellows out while still appearing conceptually ambitious. Niche artists like Joanna Newsom don’t inspire broad “expectations” to subvert, almost by definition. What expectations can you “subvert” when you’re a classically-trained harpist who had early access to Will Oldham and Bill Callahan and pretty soon had Van Dyke Parks and Steve Albini on call? (Still wondering why Albini was there beyond name recognition. All that distinctive harp-miking he’s so renowned for?) When you start your career singing in that voice, your only option is to either go big or go home. Which isn’t fair, of course. It’s not Newsom’s fault we pop music consumers are fickle scum. But let’s not lose our heads here. You know who actually subverts expectations? Taylor Swift.
Anyway, with all that baggage out in the open, Divers takes another logical step, tightening up from the sprawling consistency of Have One on Me without quite tightening up enough to return to Mender’s folk-pop. This is easily Newsom’s most sumptuously arranged album, with a more eclectic palette of instruments than she’s previously employed: the harps and pianos and strings are still there, but proggy organs and dulcimers and banjos and zithers and horns and accordions and harpsichords — all instruments she’s employed occasionally in previous work — are upfront and all over the place. And yet the sheer collection of sounds and colors never feels gimmicky. This makes Divers sounds very “out of time” in a way that sometimes reaches uncanny levels, like the jarring way the small backward loop of Newsom’s voice rises up at the end of “The Things I Say” (otherwise an okay voice-and-piano lament for the futility of “listing sins and vows”) only to be snapped off just when it seems to have grasped onto something else. Or the artificial clip of the keyboard that sounds like faded bagpipe drone in “Leaving the City”, which sets off some march-beat snares whose militance (however fragile) I found very heartening. Or the way the miniature “Same Old Man”, starting with lovely measures where the banjo directly evokes rain tipped from a leaf, gradually reveals its low harp resonance as, in fact, digital bass wooze.
Equally important, considering how well her voice shades the lush arrangements, Newsom’s singing gets back some of the quirkiness that was evened-out wearyingly for Have On on Me. Indeed, the first two songs here as sonically rich and melodic as anything in her catalog. “Anecdotes” begins with a broken soldier and proceeds from there with Newsom lulling and squirming but always shaping what seems to be a very specific worldview of some half-remembered narrative. The high notes are held strong, adding weight to the strings and flutes that pepper away a melody that the piano fills in. (Lovely piano playing through this whole album, actually.) The ebb and flow of the piece is sophisticated, strings moving from deep shadow to delightful plucked sections that sound almost like wood blocks. Getting darker and more anxious in its second half, the song pulls back in its last two minutes for a truly haunting moment where the strings turn into a shimmery, exaggeratedly artificial little synth and then settle into a dreamlike family reunion for Newsom to hold the word “gone.” The effect is striking, and worthy of deep respect. And then it just ends with a little piano resting back to the ground with a light touch. Like it was nothing.
If that song shows Newsom’s capacity for melancholy, “Sapokanikan” shows her capacity for sheer delight, with its recurring march beat that turns into drumstick clacks and offsets warm guitar licks and really catchy bits where Newsom sings counterpoint to a celeste. Her high notes in the final ascent are expertly calibrated, and once again she climaxes with the word “gone.” I don’t care whether you’re turned off by the tone of her voice or not: vocal control like this is impressive, goddammit! The way she tiptoes through those high phrases in “Leaving the City”, each note clear and detached? The runs in “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” (despite the melody itself not being anything special)? The lower, hollower and more brooding notes in the mythical sea atmosphere of the title track, almost hissing with certain breaths? Even Kate Bush, who Newsom is often (fairly) compared to, couldn’t make up a word like “simulacreage” and make it sound utterly appropriate to a song’s flow.
Which brings us to the rather vexing issue of Newsom’s poetry. On first blush, her words would seem to recall the fantastical mode of early-‘70s progressive rock, especially paired with her ability to color her voice in the manner of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. And yet just as Newsom’s music intimidates a lot of people into submission, her words are basically dressed-up generics with, I’ll say it, not enough specifics (or impressionistic imagery) to tie any of the ideas together in a way that seems to evoke living, breathing people. At best, you can let the words run over you as sheer sound, which is what carries across something like the mystic underwater feel of the title track, in which her lover is a deep-sea diver and the depth of the water is a metaphor for the disorientation of love…or something. All I know is, the foggy winds and gamelan percussion plunge me further into the trancelike, submerging vibe, so I don’t have to focus on the banality of the poetic devices.
Other tracks fare even less well in the lyrics department, with banal metaphors (time as a symptom of love; “pale as millennial moons”) or narrative teases that don’t go anywhere (I want to hear something more concrete with the alien invasion imagery of “Waltz of the 101 Lightborne Brigade”, especially with that title!). The otherwise delightfully warmly-textured “Goose Eggs” uses charming harpsichord counterpoint and keyboard glow to service a line where Newsom sings that “That old veil of desire, like vessels that we fired, fell thin as eggshells.” I think we’ve all been there, amirite? I remember when my veil of desire fell thin, like those vessels we fired. It was, like, last Tuesday, you remember — around 4:30?
Honestly, I don’t even think the words are over-my-head. Believe me, it’d save time if I could just dismiss Newsom as an obnoxiously conservative wannabe-Wordsworth type. But I can’t even do that, because Newsom’s imagery isn’t exactly static (like ol’ Willie), nor is it particularly militant or funny (like, say, Byron) or dynamic (like, oh, Whitman). It just seems like a hodgepodge, which was assuredly not the case on the debut. Compare this stuff with something like “Sadie”, one of Newsom’s simplest and most memorable melodies: the words there are by no means specific, but the clash of stoicism and aching doubt in a line like “up in the clouds where he almost heard you,” combined with the dips in how Newsom colors it, is something that feels specific. Much as I respect her, it’s depressingly appropriate that Newsom now collaborates with Paul Thomas Anderson, cinema’s number one auteur for people easily distracted by pompous flourishes from the fact that there isn’t a single intelligent idea to be found.
Not that Newsom reaches Anderson’s level of obnoxiousness; Divers isn’t boring. Even when the melodies turn more generic in the last third, there are noble attempts to keep your interest: the “short flight, free roads” bit in “A Pin-Light Bent”, like a feeling hanging in the air (guilt?), or the harp stepping up into that arpeggio around the 2:30 mark in the same song like light coming and going, or the way the big orchestral outpouring at the end of “Time, as a Symptom” manages to sound tentative despite the bombast (which still ultimately doesn’t come off, I’d say).
It’s always been dumb as shit to brush Joanna Newsom off as some navel-gazing, in-over-her-head amateur. Hell, the trio of Newsom, Nico Muhly, and Dave Longstreth (of Dirty Projectors) is probably as good a team of classically-minded indie composers as you can get in the same room, leaving Sufjan out of the equation. In theory, I’m down with the principles of this album and of Newsom’s previous ones: anyone who tries to bridge the chasm between classical music’s sophistication and popular music’s depth-of-currency should be saluted. And yet…well, primary and secondary talents, y’know? I don’t wanna sound like I’m writing “American Pie” here, but it really does feel as though Newsom can do more with the simpler, more rigorously organized folk-pop base than she does with the more sprawling, pre-modernist classical one. The woman’s 33 years old, so God knows we shouldn’t summate her legacy like so many are desperate to. But if she has indeed made her most musically rewarding album since the first one, it’s telling that Divers doesn’t stretch Newsom’s music any further than the last two albums have. It’s just more organized, is all! Praise be! B PLUS