Joanna Newsom's music tends to flummox the casual listener. It's not good background music (too dynamic), not good work music (too wordy), not good exercise music (where's that four-on-the-floor beat?).
It's good music music, the kind that compels you to give it an old-fashioned bedroom sit-and-listen, the kind you think about and wrestle with and return to and wonder about.
Newsom's four albums offer two increasingly rare rewards: the pleasure of working for your leisure and the satisfaction of appreciating a well-made thing. The more attention you pay to her music and lyrics, the more lavishly you're rewarded. This may be why she's been so totally embraced by the people who automatically love her music, and so flippantly dismissed by those who don't. The joys of Joanna Newsom aren't utilitarian. But I'm here to tell you that they are profound, in both senses of the word. And worth celebrating.
Divers, her latest LP, seems to radiate with meaning, but the heat rises from the cold core of the album's abstruse concept: nonlinear space time—the idea that time is not a measure of increments progressing forever forward, but rather a dimension bound by space.
When Einstein collapsed time into space, the logic supporting some of our deepest beliefs collapsed with it. If, as Newsom sings in "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne," "You and I ceased to mean Now / and began to mean only Right Here," then where do we go from there? How now should we conceive of the past, present, and future? More terrestrial corollaries: If time is only a function of space and not a concept that includes the eternal, then suddenly the idea that love transcends time doesn't seem like such a big deal. And is it possible to ever feel truly settled in this universe?
Newsom's most astounding talent is to ground these abstractions in vignettes we can see and feel, and, even more impressively, to embed that imagery within the harmonic and rhythmic architecture of her songs.
Take a quick peek at "Sapokanikan," the first single from Divers. In the song, Newsom tries to reconcile the human desire to be remembered and adored with colonial expressions of that same impulse. Every image she employs in the song involves the past reemerging despite someone's earlier effort to cover it up. She references bones discovered beneath the proudly bohemian Washington Square Park, which was plunked down on an old "potter's field" (burial ground) that serviced New York's poor between 1797 and 1826. Prior to that, the plot had been a Lenape Indian village. She also mentions King Tamanend, whose name "inspired" that of Tammany Hall, ground zero for Democratic political corruption in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Painters cover women's faces and names with layers of grass, and male faces are painted over "what the scholars surmise was a mother and kid." At all turns, the efforts to erase the past are only temporarily successful. One way or another—time, curiosity, development—the traces of history return, as if to remind us that we'll never be remembered the way we'd like to be. (And, as if the immemorial message weren't clear enough, the final line echoes the poem alluded to in the first line, "Look and despair / look and despair.")
Newsom expresses this intricate series of ideas with an equally intricate rhyme scheme. The first verse interlaces internal rhyme with end rhyme so that the last three end rhymes stitch back to the first three internal ones. The first five lines in the song go:
The cause is Ozymandian.
The map of Sapokanikan
is sanded and beveled,
the land lone and leveled
by some unrecorded and powerful hand
You can hear the internal rhyme in Cause/Oz, map/Sap, sand/land, etc., and the end rhyme is obviously andian/anikan and beveled/leveled. This exact same pattern continues in the next four lines:
which plays along the monument,
and drums, upon a plastic bag,
the Brave Men and Women, So Dear to God
and Famous to All of the Ages rag.
"Hand" reaches back to "land" and "sand." "Mon-" from "monument" returns to the "Oz" from "Ozymandian." "God" returns to "Cause." And "bag" and "rag" recall "map" and "Sap." It's a rhyme scheme I've never seen before, a kind of ouroboros structure that maps perfectly onto Newsom's notion of an ever-reemerging but slightly altered past.
I called up Newsom and asked whether this analysis was legitimate or if I was just going crazy. She said I had correctly identified a pattern, but added that the structure of "Sapokanikan," whose complexity so impressed me, wasn't as intricate as another song on the album, "Leaving the City."
"At least all of those various rhyme considerations [in 'Sapokanikan'] lined up along the same musical meter," she said. "['Leaving the City'] has the rhyme at the end of each line and the internal rhymes that follow one meter, and a secondary set of internal rhymes that sort of quietly annunciate a contrary meter that's overlaid on the first meter." She also said she "overlaid a contrary musical meter" on top of all that, and that I had to be "conscious of the sublimated contrary meter in order to trace the rhyme."
The rhyme scheme for that song was so complicated that she had to create a chart to trace it: "I had a little key," she said. "So there was like a crescent moon and a square and a heart and a diamond representing the different considerations. The heart represents this one particular consideration of rhyme, the diamond represents a different consideration of rhythm, and here's the secondary rhyme and here's the tertiary rhyme. Sometimes they would overlap, and that was a fun little puzzle. I'd have to go back and change what led up to it for all the different imperatives to agree."
After I swept up the bits of my blown mind from the floor, I returned to Divers' liner notes, considered the chorus of "Leaving the City," and tried to reconstruct part of her chart. The result is the illustration at the top of this page (with apologies to Newsom and gratitude to Elaine Lin).
Like Newsom said, she's got a bunch of different rhyme patterns going on: an end rhyme, a primary internal rhyme, a secondary internal rhyme, and a consonance pattern that weaves voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs (in this case, D sounds, T sounds, K sounds, G sounds, and L sounds). All of that's layered on top of an iambic tetrameter (pretty standard ballad measure), which is altered by a few meaningful substitutions and added measures.
I'm lost when it comes to musical meter, and so I asked musicologist Nate Sloan about it. He told me the insistent drum beat of the chorus is in 4/4, but Newsom's vocal and accompanying electric guitar suggest 3/4 time, providing a clever, subtle rhythmic tension that animates the section. The harp notes tend to sound on the unstressed syllables in the lyrics, which I think adds to the tension Sloan's talking about.
But why is all that tension necessary?
"Leaving the City" is about the age-old conflict between country life and city life. If you want "fame and credentials," which you do, you have to live in the city and "bleach your collar" and pay a lot for rent, both financially and—if we remember our lesson from "Sapokanikan"—culturally. Living in the country affords the simplicity of "gold fields," "pale clouds," and "red barns," but it's also where the scythe does its reaping. Plus, frankly, it's boring. Or, as Newsom puts it: "The spirit will rend, in counting toward the end."
Newsom evokes the chaos of the city with a sonically hectic chorus. A rock band might have done it by smashing a guitar and introducing more discordant sounds. But Newsom's point about cities is subtler and more interesting than that. A city's apparent chaos is composed of layers and layers and layers of systems engineered against chaos. Every once in a while, those systems, like the rhythmic and metric considerations in Newsom's songs, come together to sound a single harmony: New York City, San Francisco, Seattle. When your own internal systems are added to that larger convergence, and you feel, finally, like a Seattleite, a New Yorker, a San Franciscan—that's what makes cities so seductive, so impossible to leave.
And this is the real tension Newsom is both describing and enacting in the song.
If all she were doing was describing these ideas, Newsom would still be a major artist. But her real magic lies in the way she inscribes those ideas into the form and the sound of the music as well. By operating with such masterful ambition as both a writer and a composer, Newsom's music is a massive rejoinder to anyone who tells you that you think too much, or that pop music is a low form.
I asked Newsom why she goes to the trouble of constructing such elaborate musical structures.
"The thing is, I don't know why," she said. "But... I do have a real belief that the exact right word—in terms of conveying meaning as efficiently and correctly and concisely as possible—will also be the word that agrees in terms of rhyme, musical weight, syllabic weight, beauty, and elegance. I think that words are magical. All of that effort is all about uncovering the word that is just sitting there waiting for you, and when you find it, it's like the equivalent of watching your team get a touchdown. It's just like WHOA. And you run in circles and say, 'Fuck yeah!'"