It has been 8 weeks since I reviewed Joanna Newsom's "Sapokanikan". The single, buzzing with delightfully cryptic lyrics and lavish instrumentation, won me over immediately and served as a savory aperitif to her first album in almost five years - Divers. Indeed, Newsom had kept herself far out the studio for longer than ever before following the release of Have One On Me.
Following up the huge success of Ys, a genre defining (or perhaps defying) critical smash, Have One On Me proved Newsom's ambitions stretched farther than ever anticipated. At 124 minutes it was her longest release by far, and her infatuation with simple polyrhythmic harmonies and stripped back production had been replaced with a flurry of fiercely elaborate melodies and a general desire to "sound big". The album incorporated world music with classic orchestral sounds while courting notions of Jazz and Blues, and pulled it off spectacularly. It soon became one of the standout albums of 2010, and after that? Nothing.
Albeit, this half-decade of artistic quiet was not wholly silent. Joanna tried her hand at acting, and various high profile performances and collaborations with both classical icons (Philip Glass) and indie darlings alike (Thao and the Get Down Stay Down) further whetted the music world's insatiable appetite for another album.
Now said album has arrived, and it is relieving to to say that Joanna's impeccable reputation remains untarnished.
Firstly, this is her most concise record to date - no two-hour runtime, no 17 minute-long ballads; rather a selection of 11 perfectly crafted songs each fine tuned to sound as tight as they possibly can. Therefore the high production values from Have One On Me Have returned, bringing with it the rich arrangements and overdubs which made it sound so expansive in the first place. A Spector-esque approach to production is used to combine multiple layers of instrumentals and tones to make a towering Wall of Sound. The first half of this album is particularly vibrant, and tracks like "Leaving the City" and the aforementioned "Sapokanikan" build to such cinematic heights in the closing moments that it becomes almost cathartic.
Jazz influences seep through the cracks once more in the form of complex guitar and drum sections, and the juxtaposition of these with the archaic folk sounds of fiddles and accordions bridges the gap between Joanna's contemporary style and her older, rootsier material. Her distinctive harp playing remains the centerpiece for most of the album though, and for good reason. Her skills as a harpist have been well documented since Milk-Eyed Mender, her very first foray into the musical world, but the level of expression that Joanna manages to convey each time she steps behind the instrument continues to impress and inspire. At a certain point in listening it becomes more than just a musical tool; it becomes a conduit of every feeling, thought and emotion Joanna possesses; serving as a sharp looking glass into both her artistic and real life personalities.
There is more here than just impressive musicianship, however. Lyrical and thematic elements play just as integral a part in the makeup of this album as any other, and this is [or at least appears to be] a highly conceptual album. A principle theme throughout is the concept of time, or rather the ever fluctuating perception of time regarding where we are in our lives, who we are with, and what we are experiencing at that point. Joanna explores these concepts by throwing out any notion of chronology and instead using each song to delve into a specific topic or thought, ultimately playing out like a collection of small vignettes - each telling of a different story or memory. The opening song, "Anecdotes" actually sums up this theme perfectly.
By a single play-through of the record you have already spanned centuries and travelled through various settings and time periods: at one moment you are witnessing the genesis of New York at the hands of the "Dutch Masters", the next you are mourning a lover lost to some futuristic civil war. I haven't the words to describe the sheer enormity of this album, or the true message of everything found within it it, though it is very clear that Joanna has a lot to say and a lot to ponder. It eventually comes clear that, despite the seemingly unrelated nature of the songs, the overarching themes of time and space remain firmly attached to each track. With every song you are merely turning the page in a very old and very long scrapbook full snapshots and pictures of seemingly disparate and isolated memories which end up coming together as a document of life itself.
And if you aren't impressed by that then I don't think I can say much more.
With Divers Joanna Newsom seems to have found a perfect equilibrium between the romantic mysticism of her early work with the frenetic energy of Have One On Me. Add to this the dense, beautiful lyrics and intriguing subject matter and you have one of my favourite albums of the year. Check it out.