Since 2004, when Joanna Newsom released her first studio effort The Milk-Eyed Mender via Drag City, something entirely fresh and enigmatic appeared in the sonic horizon of 21st-century folk. A singer-songwriter that, for every quirky vocal turn and majestically melodic note played on the harp, she had a sense of legacy and lyrical depth that fixed her feet firmly on the ground. Weaving unforeseen serpentine soundscapes and crawling through obscure old myths, histories and poems, she created a recipe for the future that enchanted and baffled audiences in equal measure.
© Annabel Mehran
Newsom’s output is yet to be decoded by music critics and aficionados alike, and it had better not be, as her unyielding sense of individuality is half the charm. The other half being the bleeding-fingers-on-the-harp charisma and well-studied maze of her narrative, apparent in all of the four full-length albums in her career so far.
Ys (2006), Have One On Me (2010) and her most recent release, after whole five years in waiting, Divers (2015) fluctuated from more accessible 4-minute songs to sprawling masterpieces like “Only Skin” that clocks in at nearly 17 minutes, while her three-disc third album reached the temporal dimensions of a two-hour feature film. However, time isn’t really an issue in Newsom’s apt hands. There are enough melodic puzzles and winding arrangements here, incorporating from her signature harp and piano to Bulgarian tambura and mandolin, bouzouki and baglama, Moogs and Marxophones to make the clock’s ticks trivial as they parade before you – and there’s more compositional tricks and verbal hints to discover with each listen. From composer Van Dyke Parks to the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and rock maverick Steve Albini, the people that give her a hand are as varied and numerous as her pick of instruments and mystical verses, carefully put on record after long brewing and research.
© Annabel Mehran
© Annabel Mehran
Symphonic, folk, avant-garde are limiting terms to describe Newsom’s exploratory spirit, her songs leaving you feeling awkward or deeply affected at times, unable to pigeonhole her music, and her artistic endeavors beyond that. She transformed into a comically whimsical mum to a weeping toddler for MGMT’s video “Kids”, while Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of her most recent videos “Divers” and “Sapokanikan”, first recruited her as the narrator in his latest psychedelic offering “Inherent Vice” (where she also played a small part). The baroque pop ambiance of her previous record cover was successfully succeeded by a floating collection of underwater art by Kim Keever on the cover and in the inner sleeve of “Divers”, proving that creative aspirations here don’t end with a good (or actually great) tune.
In an era when artists, more often than not, serve up an easily digestible blueprint of hooks and choruses, Newsom waltzes in with her revivalist imagery and long blonde mane, stubbornly piecing together gorgeously cryptic themes and orchestral elegies oblivious to current dos and trends. But the praise still keeps pouring in. Her songwriting tenacity is exhilarating – pure sonic detox to the curious ears that, like harp or not, they never want to be left without a challenge.
“Divers” video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, art Kim Keever