Joanna Newsom’s ‘Divers’: A (Perhaps Losing) Battle Against Time

Harpist/singer Joanna Newsom has always taken painstaking lyrical and instrumental efforts to avoided prescriptiveness. Much has been made, in almost all recent profiles and in earlier reviews, of the optimistically transcendent cyclicality of the “final” gesture on Newsom’s exquisite new album, Divers — her first in five years. But gauging the (potentially inconclusive) philosophical conclusion — one that could also be wholly cynical — of Divers really comes down to how the listener decides to experience its last song, “Time, as a Symptom.”

The album’s ending is not unlike the “Isn’t this where we came in?” conclusion/introduction to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, except even more abrupt, given that Newsom cuts herself off in the middle of a single word. The word in question — “transcending” — wraps around at the start of the album’s first song.

Set your iTunes to loop and it’ll join the album’s hanging final prefix, “trans—” and opening word, “sending.” It’ll likewise connect the similar sylvan soundbites underscoring these two moments (varied birdcalls and the technicolor fog of the album’s cover rendered in sound), joining the first and last tracks in a form of rebirth in a way that, as NPR put it, “lift[s] the spirit aloft.” Listen to it on vinyl and you may hear how “trans” and “sending” attempt, now perhaps futilely, to reach back and forth through your own memory of the opening of the album, to connect. Listen to the song on its own on, say, YouTube, and the end is an almost violent death of a close, cutting off the singer’s last command, “transcend,” as though she’s vocalizing her own — and everyone else’s own — fatal failure to do so. Like most of Newsom’s music, she leaves the meaning of the album’s culmination — and the light or despairing shadow it casts on the rest of it — ambiguous.

Throughout the album, Newsom appears rigorously aware, on both minute and cosmic scales, of the shifting ontological implications of our times, as well as their potential fallacy, and the possibility that some factors of human life — like altering time’s tyranny over it — may never truly change. The current human experience is underscored by new polarities of doom and transcendent life: possibilities of immortality via “the Singularity” versus imminent death via global warming, particle colliders showing us how space-time can be bent verus particle colliders destroying us, the Internet as the birth of a more universalist world versus the Internet as the death of the physical world. Even more than artists who’ve been lauded for eliciting the emotional spectra of humans who’ve melded with machines, Newsom has, with her bounty of antiquated instruments, made an album that unquestionably sounds like today.

On Divers, Newsom is also at her most vocally powerful. It seems she’s lined up her timbres from each previous album like keys on a piano to strike at exactly the right moment (the brilliant nasal shock therapy of The Milk Eyed Mender, the occasional leaps into conventional beauty on Ys, and the mellifluous whispers of Have One on Me that could leave you longing for more Milk Eyed grit). Compositionally, it’s as though she’s figured out how to condense the sprawling meanings and forms of her Ys and Have One on Me tracks to 4-6 minute pieces that are somehow tight and almost always transformative. (You’d never know the beginning and end of “The Things I Say” — the two-and-a-half minute track which begins as a folksy confessional and warps to resemble a ballad sung by The Man From Another Place — were parts of the same song). Interestingly, she exhibits the most control in her career in an album that is about the sad but perhaps comforting realization, expressed on “Leaving the City,” that we’re stuck to make beauty only with the time and materials that “we are allowed.”

The nakedness of Newsom’s voice in the opening lines of the first track, “Anecdotes'” is fraught: she presents herself deliberately here as a lone voice telling stories, while in the same song she ponders the powerlessness of the gesture, saying, “Anecdotes cannot say what time may do.” The next song, the previously released, Greenwich Village history-charting “Sapokanikan,” begins with the assertion that “The cause is Ozymandian.”

Though that lyrical “cause” is the mapping of the former Lenape village that was leveled — covered in, say, Gray’s Papayas (which she slyly walks through in her Village-crossing music video), and forgotten by history — said “cause” could likewise speak to any meticulous act of creation. She evokes Shelley’s famous poem, in which a hunter in the future gazes on a fallen sculpture of Ozymandias, a king whose dilapidated monument reads “Look, on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” The other clearest-sung, instrumentally unadorned lines on the album are “Look and despair,” another indication that her final act of disappearance in the last song may suggest just as much futility as transcendence. Are we experiencing Newsom’s ephemeral monument? Like Ozymandias’ pedestal, this album tells us, with clarity, to despair over the eventual ruin of all things, while also questioning absolutist notions of such a fate.

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“Goose Eggs” compiles perhaps the widest range of styles and instruments, boasting the congested wurlitzer and chameleonic promise of a 1978 synth (the Baldwin Discoverer), the false antiquity of the Baldwin Electric Harpsichord, a Neupert Clavichord, two Fender Rhodes Pianos, (all played by Newsom), “five glorious seconds of Hammond BZ organ” and, finally, electric guitar, played with a twang that gives the densely orchestrated song an air of playfulness. This track’s narrative involves throwing back whiskey with a pal and speaking, with frazzled acceptance, of “the scrambling of broken hopes” and, because it’s a Joanna Newsom song, “lost goose eggs.” But though it flits about with a nonchalance you won’t hear on the rest of the album, the bounteous instruments used here indicate how Newsom is composing an army of transcultural (elsewhere on the album: bouzouki! baglama! banjo!), time-travelling sounds to back her up in her poetic confrontations with finitude. Just after this track, Newsom illustrates, in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” World War IV. But here, it’s a war we’re constantly fighting, “a war between us and our ghosts,” and so Newsom grapples with the seeming inevitability of her — and her loved ones’ — own.

It’s perfect that the list of instruments employed on the album escalates, until the album’s very last moment, where she just says “fuck it” and enlists an entire philharmonic orchestra. It is in this final track — the aforementioned “Time, as a Symptom” — that the seeming core of the album is revealed. As Entertainment Weekly first mentioned, Newsom told Uncut that “death stops being abstract [when you’re in love], because there’s someone you can’t bear to lose. It’s like a little shade of grief that comes in when love is its most real version. Then it contains death inside of it, and then that death contains love inside of it.” For Newsom, it’d seem that Andy Samberg fuels the keen contemplation of mortality, but for the purposes of not imagining Jizz-in-My-Pants encroaching on these more universal notions, let’s just say it’s love in general. Here, Newsom sings that “Love is not a symptom of time. Time is a symptom of love.”

It may help to think of the final track as akin to the Large Hadron Collider, a giant, molecularly transcending loop that sparked hyperbolically phrased debates over whether it’d produce a) God particles and/or b) the destruction of the whole fucking universe. (This connection to the song doesn’t seem quite as bizarre a claim if you know that Newsom likened the album to Interstellar.) Once the track accelerates — a movement enabled by David Longstreth’s arrangements for the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra — it splits Newsom’s otherwise fluid sentences into fragmentary commands. “White star, white ship–Nightjar, transmit: trans—,” Newsom chants, and suddenly ceasing mid-word, the album ends.

Incidentally, the Large Hadron Collider is being turned up to its highest level this week, with the goal of creating tiny black holes that’d open doors to a parallel universe, in mind. This album arrives during a time where a machine is similarly leading people to question whether its grand finale will be to transcend space-time or, simply (for the especially alarmist), end the world. The fact that these questions now appear a matter of imminent science — rather than myth/religion — gives Newsom’s album a heightened sense of timeliness.

Divers is a monumental album in which monuments are brought up for their proneness to crumble, their inability to remain beyond their — as a line in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” goes — “great simulacreage.” But it wonders, with the ultimate inconclusiveness of that last line, if the physical/temporal restraints on the human condition could shift. In “Sapokanikan,” Newsom sings that “the causes we die for are lost in the idling bird call.” And so perhaps its best to say that there’s both victory and despair, existing as parallel possibilities, when the album ends with either a death or a transcendence, underscored by birdcalls — the indifferent, (and especially as Jonathan Franzen likes to point out, also fleeting) presences that are left. The question it leaves open — as it simultaneously creates a tragic death and a transcendent bridge — is one that makes Divers one of the affecting reflections of our philosophical, scientific and emotional moment recently made into an album.