For an artist who has struggled with her child- and fairy-like typecast, folk singer Joanna Newsom has emerged with her new album sounding more mature than ever. Newsom, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter, has been working on her fourth album, Divers, during a new era in her life. The album, available on Oct. 23, promises to show her musical evolution alongside her continuing maturity that began with her 2010 album, Have One on Me.
The California native hasn’t only changed musically. In 2013, she married comedian Andy Samberg, introducing her to the mainstream limelight. Divers works off of this life change as a concept album loosely about time and how, ultimately, all will come to an end. With the two released singles, Newsom tackles her theme with very different sounds.
Newsom’s first single, “Sapokanikan,” begins with a ragtime sound and is soon complemented by a marching beat. The simple yet evocative music is joined by the singer’s unique vocals and complex lyrics. Newsom uses her characteristically layered lyrics and heavy references to invoke ideas of immortality and obsolescence. The title itself is a reference to a Native American tobacco settlement that stood where Greenwich Village is now. She also calls out historical instances of corruption, including political machine Tammany Hall and early 1900s New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel, among many others. “Sapokanikan” is just further proof of Newsom’s songwriting capabilities. She battles in a field that not many are brave enough to enter. Like folk-rock singer Al Stewart, Newsom uses heavy references and historical stories to create in-depth and immersive songs that deal with everyday contemplation in a way that intrigues the listener while still relating to the listener.
Newsom leaves the saloon sound for an older, more baroque style. However, her second single, “Leaving the City,” is a throwback to her older sound. The medieval harp pattern is accompanied by electric guitar and drums. When her raw and strong vocals are added, a full sound is created with a slight metal leaning. Like her previous single, there’s a marching feel but this time, it’s as if it is into battle. The lyrics mirror that with short lines accompanied by hard rhymes.
Newsom sings, “The longer you live, the higher the rent / beneath a pale sky / beside the red barn / below the white clouds / is all we are allowed,” showing her descriptive and emotional chops. The word “allowed” is used often to help Newsom tackle the ideas of life’s limitations. Newsom seems to be pointing to the feeling that no matter where one goes or escapes to, something is always lost.
Divers has been five years in the making, but Newsom hasn’t wasted one minute of that time. The album is shorter than normal for Newsom, but she’s maintained her labyrinthine lyrics. Even with the newfound brevity, Newsom hasn’t missed a beat in the packed meanings and sounds for each song.
Newsom worked with David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and composer Nico Muhly, among many other talented collaborators. This wealth of musical experience and talent only made Newsom strive to new heights. Though the album is shorter — 51 minutes compared to previous albums of over two hours in length — Newsom still manages to not only assert her sound as evolved and established, but also as varied and experimental.
With Divers’ release on Friday, the Drag City artist not only presents her fourth album, but also an introduction to a Newsom who is more settled in life while still challenging herself as an artist and thinker.