Sitting in a transcontinental airliner, I have a window seat, the scars of the perennial rainstorm gullies paint the landscape below. I am going to press play on Joanna Newsom’s record Divers and offer a few words about what I hear. For all purposes this is my first listen, as the rotations in car rides through Oregon, California, and Washington state have been through a slowly deteriorating stock stereo system of a 1995 Toyota Camry, aka Gnome Car. Here goes: Play!
I love her music and the sonic aesthetic, and if desired the reading can stop here. I’m going to pretty much praise all her choices, and its possible your better off just listening/buying her album and skipping my monologue. But if in the mood for my brief thoughts, please scroll down and continue.
Digital birds in our universe, an automated bird calls. Anecdotes, a trench warfare epic as a feast for the ears, with inspiration starting crystalline and strangely digital. Meandering yet calculated harp, punctuated by flute and “do my ears deceive me”, a synthesizer! She’s backed by an orchestra, a triplet meter washed with strings, woodwinds, and a glassy white fog of a synthesizer. Idiomatically the story weaved is heartbreaking and told in such a way as to inspire awe of a “how is this going to be performed live?” It’s a massive undertaking of a record, to my ears at least. Maybe the most ambitious technologically savvy musical journey I’ve heard from Joanna.
In Saponikan, I feel like it could take a year or two to understand what she’s singing about. The track is awash in highly nuanced counterpoint, so much so that my thoughts wandered to wanting to hear the bare bones of this track. I love the lyrical quality and without the lyrics on hand, I’m left picking through the story as a gold miner. And there is gold. For me just the vulnerability of “Do you love me?” holds the fruit of this tune.
Leaving the City, holy-moley Joanna, this is pop! And its amazing! Granted for me it took a few listens to acclimate to the mixture of baroque harp and driving aggressive drums. Honestly it sounds in words, stranger than it actually is to the ears.
In Goose Eggs, Joanna has a knack at mixing seemingly ingredients for a successful musical journey. Here its harpsichord and country electric guitar.
Waltz of the 101st Lightborne, “It was there that I called to my true love, who was pale as millennial moons, honey where did you come by that wound?” “That’s why we are bound to a round desert island, ‘neath the sky where our sailors have gone, have they drowned in those windy high lands, High Lands away, my John.” I absolutely love the imagery here, and a curious whismy title for such a minstrely dynamic piece of love and the wounds of forever war. “High lands away, My John.”
The Things I Say, an intimate journey which, in my opinion, only Joanna can summon such a journey to the short cropped late summer corn fields of Pennsylvania, with a piano, a stream, and a flock of birds. Love the timbre, and the tonality of the absolutely eerie “saws?” I think. The ending brings to mind an apocalypse, from those stalky corn fields, to an abrupt fast forward to an empty planet, a darkness, an experience with zero gravity.
Divers, perfectly place dafter the bucolic stilt walk of The Things I Say. The content of Divers, fits perfectly, this almost makes me believe that this is an anti-war album, an album questioning our relationship with our own “deathwish.” “In an infinite capsize, like a boat tearing down the coast, double hulls, bearing double masts. I don’t know if you loved me most, but you loved me last.” This song makes me wish I had a huge speaker system a dark room, and hearing acute as one of those little blind moles. “And never will I wed, Ill hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life, and ever hold my breath till I may be the diver’s wife.” Not much else to say. Listen/Watch
Same Old Man, Banjo! This is a little throwback to the Have One On Me, tonally. Yet there arrives a synthesizer, soft as firefly’s, drifting, landing. A tree trunk of a snyth takes over the foundation of this one. “New York City continues on alone.”
You Will Not Take My Heart Alive, lyrically she’s done it again and again and again. Tonally, musically, and timbrelly, she’s done it again and again. I hear a Mello-tron! Or something emulating such flute warm soft tape. Again there is a call to action, a call to empowerment, “You will not take my heart alive!” Sing it girl! In its repetition Im reminded of my own convictions, and where and for what Im willing to lay my heart on the line.
A Pin-Light Bent, I almost see/hear this song as a time-lapse journey, the solo harp and sparse accompaniment echoes a wasteland to my sight/hearing. I see the land “from that height was a honeycomb, made of light from those funny homes, intersected, each enclosed, anelectric and alone.” She shines light on the “already” post-industrial wasteland, almost Koyaanisqatsi–esque.
Time, as a Symptom, begins with the whipporwhill, a safe place, in-nature, a place to breathe. A song of the undying perseverance of the most intimate joys of our life. The digital birds digress from digital murmurs to actual live forest samples, home. “Time passed hard, and the task was the hardest thing shed ever do, she forgot the moment she saw you.” “The nullifying defeating negating repeating joy of life. The moment of your greatest joy sustains, not axe nor hammer nor tumor tremor can take it away it remains.” “and it pains me to say, I was wrong. Love is not a symptom of time, time is a symptom of love.” What a journey of a record to start in one place, and land on this time machine of a song, I hear nature, I hear us.
Live Performance in Portland, OR, The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Monday March 28, 2016. See you there!