Singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom is one of modern music’s greatest anomalies: an indie artist whose touchstones are harp arrangements, polysyllabic lyrics and a bizarrely squeaky voice. The 33-year-old proudly belongs to another time period — perhaps medieval — but still managed to keep a dedicated fan base after the freak-folk boom of the mid-2000s. Her last LP, in 2010, is a perfect example of her singularity: Have One on Me, a dazzling triple album.
But Newsom narrows her creative scope for once on new album Divers, and the result is her best record yet. At 11 tracks, it won’t scare away listeners overwhelmed by the volume of past projects. The songs themselves are more approachable too but no less lush and captivating. Divers is a triumph of classical art-pop, with multilayered arrangements as powerful as anything Newsom has ever done.
Bringing in collaborators like Nico Muhly and The Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth to help streamline her frequently bogged-down arrangements, Newsom (wife of actor Andy Samberg) is spry and freewheeling. “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” wraps a futuristic war story in an intimate Appalachian waltz, while “Same Old Man” captures Newsom’s disenfranchisement with New York in the lonely lurch of a few banjo notes.
As you may have guessed, despite the more digestible pop structures, her songs still aren’t exactly radio hits. Those who love Newsom’s knotty maximalism will still be satisfied. The sweeping six-minute opener “Anecdotes,” for instance, is stunningly ambitious. And first single “Sapokanikan” is a five-minute piano stroll that references a long-forgotten Lenape village, Australian Impressionist Arthur Streeton and two separate versions of the poem “Ozymandias.”
A deeply thoughtful artist in an era of shrinking attention spans, Newsom spends much of the album ruminating on her legacy. “And that is all I want here/To draw my gaunt spirit to bow/Beneath what I am allowed,” she sings on “Leaving the City.” Although Newsom will likely never be accepted by the mainstream, Divers continues a breathtaking recording run from one of music’s most unique voices.