Joanna Newsom Returns With Compelling, Complex 'Divers'

Joanna Newsom (Photo: Annabel Mehran)

Joanna Newsom can be polarizing. Maybe that comes with the territory of being an indie-rock harp player. Some dismiss her as twee and precious, her music as flighty and pretentious, her voice as, well, odd. But there are others who embrace her with loyal devotion for the very same things.

Her last album, 2010’s “Have One on Me,” was too much for even some of her most ardent fans, literally. It clocked in at more than two hours, spread over three CDs -- often brilliant, but a lot to take in.

She’s taken in a lot herself since that album, notably marrying comic actor Andy Sandberg in 2013 and playing the role of the “Earth goddess” narrator in the movie “Inherent Vice” for director Paul Thomas Anderson, a fan and friend. It’s a long way from her Nevada City, California, origins. But rest assured: She hasn’t gone Hollywood. She’s pretty good with a cinematic-level narrative, though.

Joanna Newsom's "Divers"
Joanna Newsom's "Divers"

If the last one was an epic trilogy, her new album, “Divers,” is a compelling, complex novel, clocking in at a much more manageable 52 minutes. It’s still full of unexpected twists and turns, in story and in her ever-evolving, ancient-modern mix of folk and classical-derived styles.


She and co-producer Noah Georgeson continue to show a taste for the unusual and arcane (a chorus of musical saws on one song, “The Things I Say”), but never without artistic impact.

“Divers” opens with a war scene, a battle not witnessed directly but reported by scouts, in the song “Anecdotes.” Love is a battlefield? OK, she’s not the first to use that analogy.

But there’s an intimacy to the portrayal, a depth of both experience and emotion, expressed equally in words and music, that threads through the shifting scenes and scenarios that unfold.

The most touching, moving moment, perhaps, comes in  “Same Old Man,” a traditional folk song in which the singer has returned home from an emotionally painful time in New York. She’s comforted to see the same old woman putting out the wash, the same old man sitting by the mill. Yet the pain remains.

The title song, with poetically archaic language and an art-song lilt, describes a diver who pops up for air now and then and a woman who watches from a pier. It’s a strange dance of a relationship, but in her telling seems to hold infinite possibilities and magical mysteries within its “rules that bind,” as she sings.

The closer, “Time, As a Symptom,” is a song of birth, with a touch of death. Here she and  Georgeson outdo themselves, even by the chamber music standards set on earlier albums. With gradually increasing orchestral grandeur — strings and winds and peeling tympani — Newsom’s confident, strong and not-odd voice is joined by chirping birds. Yes, birds! As the music fades, they remain to sing us out, nurtured by nature.

Twee tweets? From Joanna Newsom, it’s a perfect ending.