Album of the week: Joanna Newsom: Divers

Joanna Newsom. Picture: Damon Winter
Joanna Newsom. Picture: Damon Winter
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LOVE her or be turned off by her mannered little-girl voice, there is no disputing that Californian chanteuse Joanna Newsom is a musical free spirit.

Joanna Newsom: Divers

Drag City

Star rating: ***

Her unapologetically idiosyncratic baroque folk has cast its siren spell across three meticulously stylised albums to date, such that new music from Newsom is a breathlessly anticipated event.

She follows her 2010 triple album opus Have One On Me with this positively pithy double album, painstakingly arranged and recorded in collaboration with composer Nico Muhly and Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors over the past couple of years. But this labour of love is far from laborious. The listening experience it provides is akin to opening up a fascinating cabinet of curiosities.

By her own admission, Newsom “can’t write an easy song”. Her lyrics are layered, opaque puzzles she sets for her fans to figure out and the music showcases a similar technical complexity.

Newsom’s voice is the most distinctive, and polarising, instrument in her arsenal, but there is much else to feast on sonically on Divers. In addition to her signature harp, she employs a variety of keyboards – clavichords, mellotrons and something called the Marxophone, a dulcimer-like instrument with the timbre of a mandolin.

Each of the 11 tracks – ten originals and a cover of Karen Dalton’s Same Old Man – is an aural adventure in itself, from the playful woodwind refrains of opener Anecdotes to the rather proggy coming together of the antique (clavichord) and electronic (mellotron) on the free-flowing Goose Eggs.

Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell are her enigmatic touchstones. Their work is echoed but not aped by Newsom, though her vocal melodies weave a similarly unpredictable path through songs such as Leaving The City.

That city is New York, where Newsom lived for a time while writing the album. She sings obliquely of the city’s ancient topography on Sapokanikan, named after the Native American settlement which was once located on the site of present day Greenwich Village.

“The records they left are cryptic at best,” sings Newsom, though she could be referring to her own lyrics. However, the carefully calibrated blend of saloon-bar piano tinkling, brief outbursts of martial drums and mournful woodwind creates a characterful soundtrack.

Newsom’s skill is in reconciling her many musical ideas so harmoniously. Sci-fi war requiem Waltz of the 101st Lightborne has much going on, but the folky waltz flavour comes to the fore with Newsom’s vocal gurgles dancing over the top.

That voice can be hard to take across one song, let alone a whole album, but she drops a degree of affection on the title track to deliver a more direct emotional and haunting folk performance over gossamer harp.

Newsom has said Divers is an album of love songs – if so, this one is the most poignant.