Joanna Newsom – ‘Divers’

Californian kook Joanna Newsom’s fourth album is a marvellous mix of country, pop and lyrical oddness

Since her enduringly lovely third album, 2010’s ‘Have One On Me’, Joanna Newsom has turned her oddball cult into an empire. Between fancy fashion shoots, starring as Sortilège, the earthy narrator of noir flick Inherent Vice and marrying comedian Andy Samberg, the harpist – treasured for her knotty compositions, wicked wordplay and quizzical, pipsqueak vocals – has emerged as indie’s least-likely infiltrator of pop culture.

So it’s reassuring that, five years on, the 33-year-old is back with something utterly predictable: yet another masterpiece. ‘Divers’, her unusually tight fourth album, is full of lofty concepts (‘Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne’ sees time-travelling soldiers wage a futile war on their own ghosts) but her crafty tales, signposted by ornate folk arrangements, rarely outpace your imagination.
On ‘Leaving The City’ – all pirouetting harps and Celtic cacophony – sneaky rhymes fidget like anxious thoughts: “The bridle bends in idle hands/And slows our canter to a trot/We mean to stop, in increments, but can’t commit/We post and sit, in impotence”. The album’s a puny 50 minutes compared to its two-hour predecessor, but you’ll disappear down its lyrical rabbit holes for hours.

The music can be cinematic, as on the epic ‘Anecdotes’, or spartan, like piano ballad ‘The Things I Say’. One constant is Newsom’s inclination towards the warped country of ‘Hejira’-era Joni Mitchell and the wild Greenwich Village folk of Karen Dalton, yet she’s never corny. But then, Newsom has never really been one for tradition. In interviews since getting hitched in September 2013, she’s observed that it’s “inviting death into your life… because there’s someone you can’t bear to lose”. ‘Divers’, then, is no honeymoon-period frolic.

Revisiting a theme that’s infiltrated her every record since 2004 debut ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’, prog-country hybrid ‘Goose Eggs’ knots together allusions to wilting attraction and infertility: “The old veil of desire/Like the vessels that we fired/Fell thin as eggshells”. But when Newsom is more playful, a creative dam bursts, and you’re sent reeling. On ‘Anecdotes’, she describes a bird, startled mid-flight by gunfire, as a “hotdogging loon”. It’s a puzzler of a detail, but it’s so strangely evocative you can’t help but marvel along with her.