wed 20/09/2017

CD: Joanna Newsom - Divers | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Joanna Newsom - Divers

CD: Joanna Newsom - Divers

Wonderful and ambitious songs that occasionally trip over their own cleverness

Title track 'Divers' is one of the best

“I always think she knows a little more than the rest of us,” said film director Paul Thomas Anderson, on casting Newsom as the knowing narrator Sortilège in last year’s Inherent Vice. Fans of her music know the feeling. It’s five years since the epic Have One On Me, all of which time Newsom claims to have been working, on and off, on Divers, an inspiringly complex and ambitious collection discussing love, history, time travel, desolation, the indigenous people of New York (I’ve only got 300 words, so I’ll leave it there…).

Vocally, Björk and Wuthering Heights-era Kate Bush (with glimpses of Karen Dalton and Joni Mitchell) are the reference points. Make a quick comparison, though, and Newsom is more obviously artful than both, the lyrics denser and the delivery more complex and variable. It’s rather like watching a film made solely on hand-held cameras: vivid and distinctive, but sometimes exhausting, the challenge of working out what’s being said (the lyrics always matter here) too often pitted against the accompaniment.  

'Sapokanikan' is a seminar paper, novel or opera libretto, bursting to escape

“Sapokanikan” (named after a Native American Manhattan village, and the subject of a striking video directed by Anderson - see below), is a case in point. As she strolls through today’s New York, Newsom explores the history of thousands of years of colonisation and violence. I found myself trying to block out the music in order to follow the story. Form and content are wrestling one another, ostentatiously.

Newsom is a very serious and thoughtful songwriter, who has taken the folk-inspired art-song to new heights of complexity. The instrumentation is lush, sophisticated, and often very beautiful. Responses to her voice will depend on taste, of course, and occasionally I’ve still wanted to reach for the can of WD-40. Where she falls short of Björk, for me, is in her total vision, the way words, structure and music come together - or don’t. They work best when she manages to contain the narrative to song-like proportions. “Divers” and “Time, As A Symptom” are mysterious and wonderful. “Sapokanikan” is a seminar paper, novel or opera libretto, bursting to escape. Now there’s an idea for the next five years, Joanna.  

@matthewwrighter

Form and content are wrestling one another, ostentatiously

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