Joanna Newsom, "Divers" (Drag City)
In our age of acronyms, emoticons and disappearing messages, "Divers," Joanna Newsom's first album since 2010, is an ancient codex providing an opportunity for submersion deep into its folds or to just float safely on its surface. Both can be equally rewarding experiences.
Occasionally reining back her usual preference for length — of a lyric, a song or a whole album — "Divers" could occupy just 52 minutes of your time. But Newsom builds songs like cathedrals of sound, layers of voices, instruments and words reaching you from every direction. Take the express tour or settle in the nave and stay for hours.
The record never loses its sonic clarity — Steve Albini and Noah Georgeson take a bow— even as Newsom's crisp harp, regal piano and often multi-tracked voice is enveloped by a well-cast collection of bouzoukis, English horns, too many keyboards to name, the City of Prague Symphonic Orchestra and even a Hohner Guitaret, a kalimba in a box.
Newsom's voice is a kaleidoscope, every slight turn coloring the songs in varied explosions of emotion. Sometimes it turns excessive — in "The Things I Say" her vocal character mutates every few words — and there is little to dampen her sudden highs and sharps, which are much more pronounced than on her previous album, the three-disc "Have One On Me." Fewer vocal acrobatics would not necessarily result in less thrilling performances, just less distracting ones.
Lyrically, there is plenty of room for discoveries and interpretations with Newsom's unedited love of language encompassing war, unstable lives and relationships, references to New York, both clear and obscure, and much more.