Joanna Newsom Divers

[Drag City; 2015]

Styles: pop, classical
Others: Kate Bush, Scott Walker, Björk, Fiona Apple

1. Trauma

Honey, where did you come by that wound?

It’s hard to say. There is some trauma in everything. In discovery, I am powerless and vulnerable, and yet I continue to discover as if I have no choice but to open myself to pain. What about you?

Joanna Newsom sings about “The land lone and leveled/ By some unrecorded and powerful hand,” referring to the erasure of the geographic history of Sapokanikan, a pre-colonial Lenape Indian village once located where Greenwich Village is today. From what wound related to that violent act of cartography may Newsom claim to bleed to us such graceful verse? The passing of time has left us with only symptoms of the great trauma inflicted by that “unrecorded and powerful hand.” In this modern condition, such symptoms are responsible for many of our deepest confusions about the world. Under the restrictive canopy of the city, a violent growth towering over history, Divers plunges down into that shared trauma.

In doing so, Divers steps outside of itself. Its lyrics are obscure, and its melodies are more variable and complicated than those of the “overstuffed gorge” some saw in 2010’s Have One On Me. At particular moments, though, it is plainspoken and personal. It is an account of ideas and phenomena given for the sake of song, submitted for interpretation and judgment. There is something threatening about Divers before I know what it means, though I consider myself a crucial mediator in its constitution as a work of art. Art is an exchange of vulnerabilities and a potentially traumatic encounter.

Divers is, to greatly oversimplify its project and to mention only one of its many mythic frames of reference, about the fall and redemption of humanity. That divine catastrophe is scaled down to the commonly human quantity of the sensible work of art, rich in emotional honesty and poetic complexity. Trauma is disclosed in subtle confession:

I fell.
I tried to do well, but I won’t be.

2. Power

I am afraid of power, because it conceals and makes strange. Power both begets and organizes traumatic experiences. It is important to observe that Divers is powerful, in the sense of having been imbued with power. Divers is a field in which Newsom wields regulative and gentle power,

Where you had better find your peace,
whether north, or south, or west, or east.
And I had better find my way
to being the kind of friend you seemed to need in me.

Struggling with the enthralling, surprising, and demanding qualities of Newsom’s music is necessary in entering into the proper relation with it, but I feel explicitly disallowed from getting lost in every word. Some people could spend years struggling with Newsom’s verse, which is funny and bookish and dizzyingly gorgeous. There’s no use trying to help them. If I could write a glossary of this record, I would, but such a gesture would be both an exercise in futility and an act of violence against a work of art. This is a record about engaging with texts, and while these texts are not necessarily Divers, one may think of Newsom’s words as produced from centuries of lost and misunderstood sages;

And the records they left are cryptic at best,
lost in obsolescence:
the text will not yield
(nor X-ray reveal, with any florescence)
where the Hand of the Master begins and ends.

The lyrical complexity of Divers is not a purely regulative exercise of power; it is experienced as a meandering stream with its own conversational clarity. Linguistic comprehension of the lyrics is helpful, but unnecessary. It goes without saying that I appreciate Newsom’s dedication to the craft of composition and musical performance, even as I don’t understand the classical tradition she works in; I should then doubly appreciate her craft in working with the instrument that is irreducibly her own and belongs to no tradition: her voice. It gives us figures on a stage, if not any semblance of drama. Leitmotifs, detached from their master-narrative: war and geography, for example.

Above them,
parades mark

Come to think of it, I shouldn’t tear too many pages out of this text, which is a durational event. I create a false analogy between the horizontal distance of the word and the great vertical distance of time, of remembrance and anticipation. The voice discloses Joanna Newsom’s experience — and her power to sing — long before it discloses anything else. Analysis is just translation between vernaculars, and the one I’m using pacifies and banalizes that process of discovery. Still, I may not violently redetermine the work of art, because I’m not as good at writing beautiful prose as Joanna Newsom is at writing beautiful music, and more importantly because Newsom’s medium is governed by duration. The order in which my work is embedded has adapted to the problem of making determinations about art without the means to make important, engaging determinations; ad companies merely count the number of clicks and impressions. My permissive horizon.

Beneath the pale sky,
beside the red barn,
below the white cloud,
is all we are allowed.

The environment wields power. Newsom often leaves the city in search of cleaner air, though in “Sapokanikan,” she dives into the despair of its untold history. All of the allusions to cartography are not figurative, in the sense that Newsom really is interested in talking about physical space and how its demarcation serves power. Structures are useful insofar as we can genealogize them and understand the historical status of the power that has naturalized itself to us. Newsom will never find Sapokanikan, which is the inevitable fact produced in all knowledge about Greenwich Village. She may only, through diving into the past, find somewhere new of her own. Divers is also, then, about setting out in faith for such truth.

And that is all I want here:
to draw my gaunt spirit to bow
beneath what I am allowed.

3. Memory

(Where round every bend I long to see
temporal infidelity.

Divers is a map. The point is not so much that it is an imperfect map, but rather that cartography is an imperfect art. All of the trauma of discovery is concealed in flatness, divided and named, leaving us with only the already-discovered and already-owned. In that sense, memory is both a colonial act and an opportunity to renegotiate power. The becoming-memory (and consequent becoming-mine) of trauma is a special human force. Confronting trauma is a hard thing to do, because it is a repetition of some original violence.

I believed they had got what they came for;
I believed our peril was done.

The memory on view isn’t mine, though, and I am privileged to observe the colonial act from outside. I do not discover Newsom’s repossessed memories as such, but rather as newly ordered symptoms of my own psychosis. And, Newsom argues, there is something in that deficit that must remain alive in art. No one can promise that diving into personal history will be emotionally gratifying, and there is absolute trauma that is enforced with the strength of nature. If we think of Newsom as an analyst or Divers as a clinical tool for penetrating deeper truths, we will fall weakly in conflict with nature.

Hey little leaf, lying on the ground —
now you’re turning slightly brown!
Why don’t you get up on the tree,
turn the color green the way you ought to be?

We must nonetheless engage enthusiastically with Divers. The process of negotiation is, for Newsom, finished, but for us it has only begun. Many of her lyrics express the same denial, which bears, come the ninth track, the weight of inevitability:

You will not take my heart alive.

Divers is not beating with the life of Joanna Newsom’s heart. And yet, in its finite duration, I feel myself in natural communion with someone or something else. This feeling of commonality makes writing about a dead, unbeating thing like Divers possible, if not easy. I have only the unsteady beating of time, in which love becomes sensible.

Time passed hard,
and the task was the hardest thing she’d ever do.
But she forgot,
the moment she saw you.

Music is also special. If time is a symptom of love, then music, which occurs in time, is alive with love’s power. It promises a fixed duration in which we may simulate real, vulnerable togetherness. That’s a great relief in my life, because most of the time, I am alone. The sun has been separated from its horizon, and the myriad seductions of the city are now my guiding lights and closest friends, the petty romance of every low phenomenon dragging time about in bondage. With no gods or figures in the sky to pull us together in love, we must dive. A diver is my love, because Newsom and you and I have already turned left and right and penultimately up, with increasingly precarious elevation over a land we no longer recognize. In a traumatized, alienated, and utterly languishing world, Divers courageously asks:

inasmuch as the light is loaned,
and, insofar as we’re borrowed bones,
must every debt now be repaid
in star-spotted, sickle winged night raids,
while we sing to the garden, and we sing to the stars,
and we sing in the meantime
wherever you are?

And, redeemed, I learn to sing a song of my own,

in the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life;
the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.

Links: Joanna Newsom - Drag City

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