Maybe my ears are fragile. It feels like the aperture between my ears and my head is twisting to become smaller and smaller. Years ago I pictured the opening to be the size of silver dollar, my secret biological anomaly that allowed music to enter unassailed and in heaping portions. What you would call an undiscerning ear I would call a mania that wanted to devour every sound and its attendant emotions. I loved it. Now it feels that music just barely squeezes through a pinhole into my life.
Love will rust, because as soon as you begin to love you enter into a contract with time. And that initial rust is fine and unavoidable, you will just get used to the changing color of its frame. If you’re too mindless with it, corrosion comes next, and its original form starts to decay, though this too is fine and reparable. But if further unattended, if truly neglected, corrosion gives way to toxicity and then this thing you love poisons you and you die a very sad death.
These are the three stages of lapsed love. Avoid the final stage, because it becomes a heavy tumor that breeds contempt or worse: irony. It will kill you unless you pour concrete over this thing that once gave you such joy and seal it off like Chernobyl. Then it will petrify and serve as a historic landmark you visit on the days that come with that vague sadness you can’t name, and then you remember, yes, these are the things that I will carry with me forever and that, too, is fine.
For Joanna Newsom, these relics are deeply embedded within New York City, as they are in ourselves, as they are between time and love. This is Divers, her fourth album, and her greatest.
There are petrified moments of death and triumph throughout Divers that stretch across the space/time continuum. Most symbolically, there's the statue of Ozymandius, made famous in Shelley's poem as a man looks at the inscription on the crumbling structure that reads, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair." Newsom echoes this in the futuristic of “Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne” as she eyes Golden Gate Bridge and the Bering Strait from presumably her starship as the song speaks of how there is "unlimited simulacreage" to live now that we've conquered space and time. She comes back down to the Earth on the title track to speak of a more internal relic: “I ain't saying that I loved you first, but I loved you best.”
A note about Newsom: These songs of sci-fi time wars and transcendent symbol-drawing between Ancient Egypt and early 20th century NYC, her older songs of clams, star ledgers, butchers, and barrows have very little market value. They are, by nature, arcane and autonomous, which is part of what makes Newsom so unmeasurable as an artist.
But in her music there is a political message simply stated. Those rusted knick-knacks and prose that appear to have no modern cachet work to counterbalance all that does. On Divers, there is the obscure NYC mayor John Purroy Mitchell, King Tamanend, the garden of Chabot, a mill-wheel, a kiln, one ear of corn, a woman standing in the rain wearing a mackintosh, and on an on. These are the fading constants in the world, still humming low beneath our lives. She writes with a furiously untamed pen only to find that one thing can endure. It’s what makes Newsom one of the most important musicians of our modern time because it can be an exhausting enterprise to live simply, to write simply, to create simply, to put into words what needs to happen to conquer all the stuff that lays ahead and all stuff that’s left behind. Leaving the ephemera is no easy task.
Newsom understands how truly difficult it is to find a place and have peace there, which has been a long-running theme of her music: Where can we find peace? Can we find it in "unlimited simulacreage" of the time/space continuum? She is less concerned with who I am. She is always more concerned with where can I be to be who I am. Where in the digital and physical world can you find who you are?
What makes Newsom hard to handle is not the music itself (in fact many of these songs songs are made up of the same three-chord motif that’s just like anything on pop radio, only it’s examined and expanded in strict rhythms like one thousand nodes on a music box) or that her language is language-y. What separates Divers from other music is that it stands in ornate relief to a kind of daily discourse that relies on brevity and easy consumption. It has a dissidence toward the speed of life and the bemusement we experience on a micro level every day, the hourly frustrations of social media, the hot takes, the many thousands of memes we use to connect with each other until the next one takes hold in pop culture.
It takes courage to break this cycle, to write without reference, to sing untuned to common pitches, to inherit biblical proverbs, to interrogate ourselves deeply and without reflexivity, to encompass the past and look toward the future and not feel the stasis of the melancholic present where a toxic love of life poisons that which endures.
The greatness of Divers is that Newsom understands that the past can also crumble and toy with our lives. Empires fall, and heroes lay buried in ruins, like Ozymandius in Egypt, King Tamanend and John Purroy Mitchell in New York, and all out previous lovers. Newsom sings of so many forces at work on this album it becomes a surreal jumble. These songs rarely have something what you could call a chorus, they just have a direct momentum as if she’s piercing through this universe at light speed. Yes, everything happens so much, but where do we go to escape these things? Maybe we do need the infinity of time and space and that "unlimited simulacreage."
It is always tempting to shrink this idea, and distill it to a more common form. Part of undermining art as a form of critique is to let the world know you are a well-balanced person, both within and without the artist and her work. But doesn’t that, at the crux of life, bely the wars that we’ve fought, martial and romantic, social and personal? The music of Joanna Newsom fights the cause of letting love lapse. It is something of antediluvian proportions, of tangled verse and bouncing cadences, because sometimes great wars call for great weapons.
The world is large. No, the universe is large. No, it is time that is largest. No, it is love. What could possibly be more true than this? What deeper meaning do we want out of life than to live for joy and all its scraggly hairs, and who dares try to find it in a way that is more beautiful than Joanna Newsom? It should be all of us.
Joy, this quizzical thing that Newsom has talked about since “Emily” on Ys:
We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight, at this thing:
landlocked in bodies that don’t keep —
dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.
This I believe above all. For every Drake lyric adapted to an Instagram photo, find these romantic facets of the world, and embrace that risk of loving something with no cachet. When you find those facets, make that place your own, wherever it is.
Divers has re-opened my ears to believe that this thing joy is an immutable force in this life, and to wrestle with it as if I were in one of those Italian paintings, with ancient marbly muscles and alabaster skin. This, now, feels right:
The moment of your greatest joy sustains:
not axe nor hammer,
can take it away, and it remains
And it pains me to say, I was wrong.
Love is not a symptom of time.
Time is just a symptom of love
and of the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating
Joy of life.
There’s an idea that I’m paraphrasing and torturing from an essay in Dave Hickey’s excellent memoir Air Guitar that says something like we write about music in the hopes that we give credence to ourselves. What we laud as worthy also in turn makes us worthy, so that somewhere in the ether we become one with the music. That’s why I’m writing this, and this is a terrifying thing to type out: Divers gives me joy, and it makes feel joy again.