How do you follow a triple album? Not the set-up for a joke but a genuine artistic question. P.I.L. followed the dense uncompromising Metal Box with something even more experimental and uncommercial (The Flowers of Romance); George Harrison stripped things back for Living In The Material World after the kitchen-sink Spector production of All Things Must Pass; And The Clash ditched the random genre-hopping clutter of Sandinista! for their poppiest outing, Combat Rock.
Divers doesn’t quite pursue any of these paths. Neither as lavish as Ys nor as sprawling as Have One On Me, Divers gathers all the elements that one would expect from a Joanna Newsom record while managing to rein in some of her more indulgent tendencies. It was these tendencies that hampered Have One On Me – an album with undoubted highlights, but with over two hours of material to wade through, one that’s difficult to penetrate. After the lengthy songs collected on HOOM, the songs on Divers are far more concise and, consequently, this results in Newsom’s most approachable long-player. Although half the tracks still tumble over the five-minute mark, Newsom has a stronger sense of how to edit herself, yet without losing any trace of her identity.
A career highlight, ‘Leaving The City’ relays the scenic story of someone finding themselves and coming to an understanding of the important things in life while immersed in the beauty of the countryside in less time than it took Britney to implore her baby to hit her once more. Newsom acts as a tour guide taking the listener on a dramatic journey, moving the dynamics from a gentle lullaby to an intense electric purge. The pale light of a sky is transformed into something ‘splintered’ and ‘bleeding’ and she continuously reveals the poetic subtleties of her writing in a very un-showy manner. Actually, more than anyone, her obtuse verse is reminiscent of former collaborator, Van Dyke Parks.
Title track, ‘Divers’ is another intense one – a brooding tone contrasted with a magical innocent harp. Here, Joanna’s adventures move to the ocean floor, in search of ‘the pearl of death’. Indeed, while in ‘Leaving The City’, Newsom talks of struggling to breathe, by ‘Divers’ she is willingly holding her breath. There is a confidence throughout the record of an artist at the top of her game – learning from her previous work but advancing and challenging herself. The arrangements are constantly understated despite the epic aspects and her propensity for playfulness (she even incorporates an Irish lilt on ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’).
A couple more gems that are worth underlining – the gorgeously trembling ‘A Pin-light Bent’ and final track, ‘Time As A Symptom’, reminiscent of late-period Kate Bush. Like many songs here, these ruminate on birth, life and death – ultimately summed up on the closer as “the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life”. In fact, this is quite an apt summary of an album that manages to capture that jubilance and wonder without fear of examining the inevitable difficulties that one must face. For an album that probes the peaks and valleys of the spirit, its’ quality remains consistently sky-high.