“And Time, in our camp, is moving as you’d anticipate it to”, sings Joanna Newsom in ‘Anecdotes’, the first track on her fourth album, “Divers”. Consisting of eleven songs of an average 4 minutes length each, some written a few years ago and some more recent, this is by no means an inferior release compared to the vast ‘Have One On Me’, the ambitious ‘Ys’, or the fairy tale ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’. Always keen on Lewis Carroll-esque word play, logic and obscure metaphors, this occasion it seems like Newsom’s trying to grasp the intangible tale of time itself.
Said that, it’s no surprise that most of the album was built around jazz harmonies and a heavy narrative use of most of the instruments. Evolution, as Carl Sagan once stated, it’s a fact and not a theory. Shaped by big unpredictable events and small long term processes, life itself has been molded by random forces, just like these songs. In a recent interview, Newsom said that she really had no control over her compositions, feeling herself unable to confine them.
With a life of their own, these weird creatures are of huge and striking beauty as the forgotten tales they claim to convey. ‘Leaving The City’, with its arrangements and chord progressions that remind of Peter Gabriel era Genesis, the Kate Bushy ‘The things I say’, with that scary backmasked ending, the haunting love tale ‘Divers’, and the magnificent ‘A Pin-Light Bent’, where Joanna’s harp never seemed to sound as charged with fate (“my life, until the time is spent is a pin-light, bent.”) are perhaps some of Newsom’s finest to date.
Immersive even when erratic (‘Goose Eggs’, ‘Waltz of The 101st Lightborne’), or when covering the traditional ‘Same Old Man’ (with harp and synth tones replacing the banjo of Karen Dalton’s 1971 version), the craftsmanship of Newsom’s work is impressive both in scope and display. ‘Sapokanikan’, the first single, is an epic story whose layered fabric reveals the story of New York as if it were told by an ancient scroll, from the Lenape village (former inhabitants of Mannahatta, or “island of the many hills”) to the tragic death of John Purroy Mitchel, once called “the best Mayor New York ever had”.
The cover art, taken from the Wildflower series by artist Kim Keever, was inspired by the theory that all flowering plants in the world originated in China, and they found their way to Europe and America only by trade. The continents, splitting apart, made it hard for plants to cover the world. It’s the braveness of life against its fate. “But stand brave, life-liver, bleeding out your days in the river of time”, says Joanna in the album’s closing sublime moment (‘Time as a Symptom’) surrounded by singing birds, just like when it all started.
It brings to mind the controversial 1980 Woody Allen film “Stardust Memories”, where he plays the role of Sandy Bates, a renowned comic film director who wants to make a dramatic career turn towards existentialist drama. Diagnosed with “Ozymandias Melancholia”, he realises that his films will not mean nothing down the line and they will not save him from the void of death, leading him to a nervous breakdown.
Art, as a shield. Time, as a symptom. Yes, “the cause is Ozymandian.”
4 / 5