Few artists inspire as much fervent admiration from their fans as Joanna Newsom, and even fewer prove as divisive. For every person who considers her to be a singular musical genius, there is somebody who finds the unique timber of her voice and her non-traditional phrasing and approach to melody to be unfathomably twee and grating. Even when she does smooth off the edges of her voice as she did on much of Have One On Me, she stands accused of meandering her way through songs that constantly drift into long form.

At least that accusation can be laid to rest on Divers. This is Newsom’s most economical collection of songs since her debut, but it still manages to maintain the complexity and ambition of arrangement that has created her elevated reputation. The only two songs that pass the six-minute mark are the gorgeously constructed title track and the opener, “Anecdotes.” Both make use of the extra breathing space afforded by their lengths, allowing the album to make for a surprisingly easy listen despite the richness of the music and the absence of regular song structures or, for the most part, discernible choruses.


Newsom also remains one of the most dense lyricists imaginable, and it would take a good year or so to pull apart all of the references contained on this album. That would be infuriating if not for her ability to frame those lyrics in songs that still feel direct, and her ability to switch mood subtly but unalterably is brought into sharp focus on the likes of “Sapokanikan.” That song is amongst the finest of her career, shifting from a light-hearted, lilting melody to an absolute heartbreaker of a second half, with extraordinary soprano harmonies giving way to Newsom’s solitary cries of “Look and despair.” It is seriously hair-raising stuff.

“Leaving The City” is a startling departure from Newsom’s usual instrumentation, featuring hints of electric guitar and a beat that carries the song through its dizzying circular chorus. On first listen, as the album moves through the slightly less effective “Goose Eggs” and the return to the quirkier Newsom on “Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne,” it can leave you wondering whether the stunning opening stretch has left Divers a little top heavy.

Fortunately, Newsom’s meticulous approach to production (it’s not difficult to see why it takes her so much time to come back with new albums) means that there are fascinating details even on the lesser songs, such as the slight New Orleans lean on “…Lightborne” or the banjo spine to the lovely “Same Old Man.” The album also finishes on a strong run of songs that contains the stripped-down album highlight “A Pin-Light Bent” and the surprisingly personal “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” whose mood is shot through with a hint of anger that is mostly unseen in her discography.

Since her eye-catching debut, Newsom has taken quantum leaps on subsequent albums that are not repeated here. If anything, Divers is a refinement of styles Newsom has visited on previous works, and its developments are on a microcosmic level rather than via some overarching shift in approach. It nevertheless contains some of Newsom’s finest work, and if it is not quite her best album (to my ears that is still her breathtaking Ys), it establishes her as the rare artist whose music is an entirely self-contained universe with few modern touchstones. This is unmistakably her work, and she remains a supremely gifted composer who is hard to top at her finest.

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Joanna Newsom