Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.


Music 2010 Halfway Point

I can’t believe it is already halfway through the year. This means that I have to do my halfway point rankings. Sorry about being so quiet lately. I don’t expect the blog to pick up much in the near future, but I’ll try to do some more math in the next week or so. I think the best math blogging recently has been Charles Siegel at Rigorous Trivialities. It is rare that math blogging actually gets me to read a whole post in all its detail, but it has been fun to review a lot of the basics that have been posted there.

On to the music. This year has blown last year away so far. So I’ll be a little more detailed with my ranking categories than my usual 3 or 4. No particular order other than alphabetical under each category.

Stuff that is better than the best of last year:
Dillinger Escape Plan – Option Paralysis
Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
The Whiskers – War of Currents

About as good as the best of last year:
The National – High Violet
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Xiu Xiu – Dear God, I Hate Myself

Quite good:
Four Tet – There is Love in You
The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Moonface – Dreamland EP

Corinne Bailey Rae – The Sea
Spoon – Transference

Bad/Undecided because I haven’t actually made myself listen the five requisite times through to make a valid judgement:
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
The Knife – Tomorrow, In a Year

That’s all. Some comments I guess are that Band of Horses surprised me. I thought it would be great. I love their last album. I like when bands go in a new direction, but if you throw out all of your strengths and don’t replace them with anything, then you are left with nothing. That’s really how I feel about this.

See last post for biggest surprise so far: The Whiskers. Spoon is just immature as a band. They’ve made too many albums to be putting out stuff that is this cliche and childish. The lyrics are whiny at best and the songs are predictable pop. The few good songs use highly unoriginal ideas and so leave a bad after taste as to why it is actually good.

Dillinger Escape Plan managed to overcome the negative receiving of their last album. They seemed to take the criticism to heart and returned to something that sounds more like their first album, but with the maturity of a band that’s been around awhile. Excellent work!

I think maybe my biggest surprise was how much I ended up liking The Tallest Man on Earth. The first few times through I thought it was your standard folk Dylan-wannabe. These songs really grew on me. I absolutely love them and keep returning. Very well-developed songs packed with emotion at a low-fi stripped down sound. I guess a very raw sound for today’s age of digital mastering. I do find it hard to rank above “quite good,” though, with the quality of the higher up stuff.

I hope people find this list enjoyable.

Art done right

I’ve sort of posted about Joanna Newsom before, but I really must come back and give her a full post. I really hate to use the album Ys as a perfect example of exactly what I think art should be, since it is such a polarizing album. I understand why, too. I completely understand where people are coming from that hate this album. There are people who say it is unlistenable (probably not a real word).

In any case, as I understand the back story, this is an album that recounts a full year of Newsom’s life. The lyrics are directly referencing actual, real, exact events of her life. But the lyrics are incredibly abstract. The concreteness of the events that they are based on gives the songs every bit of emotion and realness as if she were telling the events straight-up. The actual lyrical abstraction into story-metaphors allows the listeners to interpret into their own situation.

I’ve put serious listening into this album at three very different points in my life. All three times I have been 100% sure that I knew exactly what had happened in Newsom’s life that she was referring to. All three times my interpretations have been radically different. This is because I was identifying so well with the emotion and metaphor in the song. I am completely baffled at my current listening, but again it fits my situation perfectly.

To me this is exactly what art should be. It should be an abstracting of real life in such a way that the viewer feels as if it is exactly their own situation.

There are some interesting cases out there that I could bring up. The first that comes to mind is Connor Oberst (at least in the early Bright Eyes stuff). It is incredibly emotive and about some really intense things. Overall, Oberst is very specific lyrically. I think in this case that is alienating. As a listener, it is hard to change the details of these specific stories to really relate to them.

One thing I haven’t put a lot of thought into is whether this interpretation of great art translates well outside of the song/poem medium. My guess is it doesn’t. It seems like it would be hard to write a novel about a specific event, but keep everything really vague so that you don’t know what the event is.

There are many, many other aspects of Newsom’s music I could go on about, but I think what I just mentioned is the key element.

Maybe I should give some examples of her lyrics. I wish I could post the entire song Sawdust & Diamonds. It is so ridiculously abstract, but as I sit here reading it, it couldn’t be any more obvious what it is about exactly. Anyway, here is a part of it:

and the little white dove
made with love, made with love:
made with glue, and a glove, and some pliers

swings a low sickle arc
from its perch in the dark:
settle down
settle down my desire

The white dove is the relationship she is in. Although, she has created the relationship with care and love, it is also ad hoc patched together in places (the fact that glue and pliers had to be used). This doesn’t matter because she still desires the person and they’ll fight through it.

then the system of strings tugs on the tip of my wings
(cut from cardboard and old magazines)
makes me warble and rise like a sparrow
and in the place where I stood, there is a circle of wood
a cord or two, which you chop and you stack in your barrow

(First off, the “system of strings” is a recurring theme. Earlier it was mentioned: there’s a light in the wings, hits this system of strings/ from the side while they swing;/ see the wires, the wires, the wires)

The dove (relationship) is being held up artificially with wires. Again, the ad hoc construction of the relationship is mentioned since the dove is made of cardboard and magazines. She sees the wires. She is aware that it is artificial in some sense.

There is evidence of her resistance to falling in love with this person (“love, you ought not!/no you ought not!”). This is probably due to her being aware of all the faults and artificiality of the relationship. Perhaps she fears that her construction isn’t strong enough and the system of strings will collapse.

But she becomes aware that every relationship and person has faults. Resisting falling in love is not an option and it overtakes her at some point (“then the furthermost shake drove a murdering stake in/and cleft me right down through my center/and I shouldn’t say so, but I know that it was then, or never”)

In any event, I certainly have never interpreted the song this way before (I used to be convinced that it was about death, actually). And it baffles me, since this must be correct. But I had just as much evidence for my last interpretation. I’m not sure I will ever grow tired of this album.

Music Update

I had a large sequence of heavy math posts before the past couple trivial ones. So since I plan on heavy math coming up soon, I’ll alleviate this tedium for my non-math readers. I haven’t posted on music since January with Andrew Bird and Duncan Sheik if I remember correctly, so it is about time to do that again.

I haven’t been keeping incredibly up-to-date in my music this year. I do have to say that even though Joanna Newsom has popped up on my radar several times, I never actually got around to listening to her until recently. I got the (in)famous Ys. I think it is fantastic. For those who don’t know, she is a harpist/songwriter. Her songs (at least on this album) are quite long (some close to 20 minutes). They are also through composed (no verse/chorus repetitions). This is sort of an ancient song form from when bards recounted entire histories in a song. I love the idea and wish it were used more. Also, she is quite experimental in style. The harp is prominent, but most use a full orchestra. The time signatures are very obscure and change rapidly. It is often not in a single key, with chords coming from all over. Yet the whole thing seems very fluent and never unnatural. Everything I look for in music.

My next pick is Loney, Dear. He toured with Andrew Bird (possibly still is), which is why I checked him out. It was exciting at first. He has lots of energy and cool ideas. But the songs grew old quickly for me, and I consider it just an OK album. I’ll probably return a few times when I want some catchy upbeat stuff, but not a lot.

The really surprising one is Doves. I’ve been a faithful follower of the Doves for a long time. I have all their previous albums and like them a lot. I’ve always considered them good, but I think this album is actually great. It is truly an artistic step up from their previous stuff. The influences range from all over the place from blues to electronica/dance. They took an incredibly long time to put this out, and it is very noticeable. The attention to detail is impeccable. I never stop noticing all sorts of little things all over the place. The faster more electronic type songs build constantly in energy and intensity to great climatic moments. The more down-tempo songs have such a great blues or jazz feel that you would never expect from a rock band. Oh yeah, they are mostly a rock band, these are subtle influences I’m talking about.

Lastly, we’ll go local. I heard this guy Zach Harjo on the local radio station and was blown away. Fortunately two days later he was playing a concert a few blocks away from me. I attended and was even more blown away. He has an album that doesn’t seem to have released yet. I talked about Doves being good at infusing their rock with blues, but this is a different blend with the same idea. It is more like infusing blues with rock. Their live show with actual solos is fantastic. This band truly has the feel and sound internalized. It was quite a moving experience (which most people who have experienced really good live blues will probably tell you). I’m looking forward to seeing more from him, especially since he lives near me.