On Joanna Newsom’s Divers
Maybe my ears are fragile. It feels like the aperture that sits 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.
What you love succumbs to oxidation, because as soon as you begin to love you enter into a contract with time. 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.
Until I heard Joanna Newsom’s Divers, my relationship with music and maybe life itself was somewhere between a one and a two. She is my favorite musician of the last decade, if I had to answer that question. She is fearless in her music in a way that I aspire to be fearless in my writing, and this album, her fourth, is her greatest.
The album is a war. For Newsom, wars are deeply embedded within New York City, as they are in ourselves, as they are between time and love. There are petrified wars all across Divers that stretch across the space/time continuum. She opens the album in the camp of soldiers in World War I, dumbstruck by battle, planting landmines and hiding in their burrows. Later she talks of the a galactic sci-fi battle that happens on “Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne” and finally comes back down to the Earth on the title track to speak of a more internal battle: “I ain't saying that I loved you first, but I loved you best.”
A note about Newsom: Her songs of clams, star ledgers, butchers, and barrows have little market value. But in Newsom’s music there is a political message simply stated. Those rusted knick-knacks that appear to have no cachet work in tandem with our digital lives and counterbalance our modern sensibilities. On Divers, there is the obscure NYC mayor John Purroy Mitchell, the Bering Strait, the garden of Chabot, a famous Shelley poem, 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. It’s what makes Newsom one of the most important musicians in the year 2015 because it is 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.
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? That is a fearless obsession with the true notion of millennial strife. It is less concerned with who I am than where can I be to be who I am. Look at the length she goes to describe this feeling of on “Pin-Light Bent”:
In our lives is a common sense
that relies on the common fence
that divides, and attends,
but provides scant defense
from the Great Light that shines through a pin-hole,
when the pin-light calls itself Selfhood,
and the Selfhood inverts on a mirror
in an Amora Obscura.
But it's mine. Or, at least, it's lent.
And my life, until the time is spent
is a pin-light, bent.
What makes Newsom hard to handle is not the music itself (which if you dig into it, you’ll find that many of these songs songs are made up of the same three-chord motif that’s like anything you’ll hear on pop radio, only they it’s examined and expanded in strict rhythms like one thousand nodes on a music box) or that her language is arcane. What separates Divers from other music is that it stands in ornate relief to a kind of daily discourse that relies on brevity and ease of consumption. It has a regal 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 Ramses II in Egypt, King Tamanend and John Purroy Mitchell in New York, and 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?
It is tempting to invert this, and shrink this, and distill this escape to a common form. Part of undermining art as a critique lets the world know you are a well-balanced person, both within and without the art. 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 underneath our fear of life is the next battle and how do we keep from losing it? This is the great millennial question.
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.
Divers has re-opened my ears to believe that joy is an immutable force in this life, and to wrestle with it as if I were in one of those Italian paintings, naked 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 book 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: I love listening to Divers, and it makes feel joy again.