Joanna Newsom is more than a run-of-the-sub-mainstream folkie. A classical virtuoso enraptured by new age-y visions, she’s the only musician who sounds like Joanna Newsom. The singer-songwriter’s first album in five years, Divers, adds electric guitar to the mix, yet stays true to her original template of epic poetry set to masterful harp-plucking and vocal ascents that climb toward the stratosphere. Divers is a more cohesive musical unit than her previous triple-album, Have One on Me, but still delivers the symphonic whimsy of Ys.
Throughout, Newsom’s vocals—seemingly limitless, but always under control—glide through swirls of piano, harp, and strings that burst forth and fade at random. Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and the rest of Newsom’s accompanying band weave pulsing rock rhythms into the usual harp and piano arrangements, first on “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” and then “Leaving the City,” where the Nevada City native pines for the “red barn under white clouds” that is “all we ever loved,” with an unexpectedly rollicking chorus that even squeezes a bit of distorted guitar into the otherwise acoustic set.
Divers’s strongest track, “Pin-Light-Bent,” also shows Newsom grappling with where she’s ended up, with a “life that came and went,” over hypnotically repetitive harp-plucking. The album’s first single, the spry “Sapokanikan,” has the tried and true Newsom formula of an instantly gratifying melody, a swelling of instrumentation and over-pouring emotion that seems like it could continue for hours, and notes so high that the inaudibility of the words cease to matter. The song is sappy, but with a blissful maturity, a tune to walk the Manhattan streets in the crisp fall air at dusk, as Newsom does in the single’s music video.
Newsom excels at indulgence and restraint. On the album’s slowest and longest track, “Divers,” she conjures late-career Kate Bush, breaking her standard epic-poem form into more traditional verse to sing about falling in love with a diver who rummages the sea and gives her jewels. On “The Things I Say,” she sings with just a piano accompaniment: “I’m ashamed to have turned out this way/And I desire to make amends.” This may be Newsom’s personae or the real Joanna speaking, but regardless, the constancy of her craft and vision speak for themselves and need no amends.