Critics love the term “baroque pop.” It’s perfectly convenient — it’s verbose, vague and intelligent-sounding. The only problem is they often blindly throw the term at all music they find praiseworthy but unclassifiable, such as that of Kanye, Bon Iver and St. Vincent. It’s been separated from what it truly refers to: modern pop music that incorporates elements of the Baroque period of classical music.
Joanna Newsom, in her newest record Divers, however, proves herself one of the few contemporary musical artists at whom critics can properly toss the term, baroque pop. She seamlessly makes use of strings, horns, brass and, of course, her signature harp — grasping for the elegant beauty of the past while still interacting with some contemporary, more accessible musical tropes.
Like Sufjan Stevens, Regina Spektor and other folk/baroque/hard-as-hell-to-classify modern musical acts, Newsom does something brilliant in each song on this record. She grounds the listener in comfortably soft, ethereal melodies. Then, out of nowhere, she shocks the listener with the introduction of sounds previously unheard in pop music.
Be it the sudden arrival of playful, jumping flutes in the album’s first song, “Anecdotes,” or the careful use of haunting synthesized bells in the titular track, every instrument used serves a clear purpose. Divers is composed and produced with such purposeful meticulousness — it’s no wonder that it has been five years since Newsom’s last record.
But Divers doesn’t just illustrate Newsom’s talent for musical arrangement. It’s also an album of astounding lyricism. Newsom’s words travel from New York City (“Same Old Man”) to Paris (“The Things I Say”), back in time to the settling of North America (“Sapokanikan”), and inward in an attempt to disconnect herself from the pains of others (“You Will Not Take My Heart Alive”).
Perhaps the most enticing element of Divers is the way in which each song’s narrative is reinforced by the quirkiness of the musical arrangements. Take, for example, “Sapokanikan.” In this ragtime-inspired track, as the piano jumps between deep, bluesy chords, and as Newsom sings, “And drums upon a plastic bag,” a crisp snare emerges. Though the connection is simple — and maybe slightly cheesy, it’s impossible not to smile when you the word “drum” as a snare drum enters and makes you want to jump to your feet, throw your arms around and skip through the streets.
And if you watch the music video, well, that’s just what Newsom does.
Although Divers is a daunting, complex listen, it’s moments like these that make the album so seductive. Even as Newsom unpacks an intricate narrative atop layers of sweeping baroque instrumentals, she’s not afraid to take a step back and invite the listener to dance a quirky dance with her.
Contact Jeremy Siegel at [email protected].