Divers (Drag City)
The big subject governing Joanna Newsom's new album, Divers, is nonlinear time, which is one of those ideas that'll get you eye-rolled right out of the cafe. But Newsom enlivens Einstein's theory by grounding it in human relationships, breathes life into it with wild arrangements, and explores its edges with martial and avian metaphors. In essence, Newsom variously pines for and embraces a time before scientists collapsed time into space, before "You and I ceased to mean Now / and began to mean only Right Here." Much like the tight sonnets she references, nearly every musical, lyrical, and structural choice she makes reflects this central concern, which makes a relatively short record for her (less than an hour) feel like a rich epic.
Take the beginning/end of the album, for instance. Borrowing a move from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the final song ends with the broken off word "trans-" and the first song begins with the word "sending," making the album a loop that confounds the traditional notions of starting and finishing.
At what would be the final gesture of the album—the finale of "Time, As a Symptom"—Newsom piles up a bunch of moves that emphasize nonlinearity. The hooting of owls mixes with the calls of morning doves, the night bird and early bird combined in an upheaval of the natural order. Her human voice gives way to soaring instrumentation and the more primitive voices of animals. The language breaks down from multi-clausal sentences to a list of indefinite articles and their attendant words ("A way a lone a last a loved a long. / A cave, a grave, a day: arise, ascend"); the "a-" negates and gives birth to the word that follows it, just like the end of this record negates and gives birth to its beginning.
Meanwhile, the melody during this section perfectly echoes a moment of crisis in an earlier song about exiting, called "Leaving the City," so it's like a little wormhole opens up and sends you reeling back to that earlier song. All of this happens in 20 seconds, and it sounds like Newsom and all her sonic finery are being pulled into an event horizon. After a few moments of silence, morning doves call out again and Newsom sings the word "sending" as if, well, she just got sucked through a black hole and is happy to be alive, again.
Given that degree of structural thought, and considering that Newsom took four years to make Divers, it's safe to assume that all her beams are load bearing. That moment I just described is but one of the many deep, analytical pleasures the album offers.
But there's enough melodic candy on the table here to get fat on without having to dig so deep into the barrel. The best songs (I like to start on "Goose Eggs" and let it roll from there) would sound equally right at the Grand Ole Opry, the grand opera, or in a medieval dungeon. I listened to them for several hours in a car, traveling through the verdant corridors of a Pacific Northwest darkened by low clouds and mist. They went over pretty well there, too.