by Jacqueleen Eng ’19
The first time I heard Joanna Newsom was freshman year of high school. Honors English nine, period 7 was a special place. Tucked away in the A Wing, Ms. Marohn hung curtains on tack boards to make it look like we windows. She had an old wooden Crosley in the back, a Pink Floyd poster on the wall, and passed around cumquats and dried apricot during class. She was a vegan, and most of her flowy skirts and warm sweaters came from thrift stores. She was the closest thing Chatham High School had to a “hipster”— and she loved Joanna Newsom.
The first song she played for us was “Peach Plum Pear” off of The Milk-Eyed Mender from 2004. At first listen, Newsom’s voice is a piercing surprise, especially for 14 year old kids who were used to top 100 radio hits. I remember talking about how weird her music was after class with my friends. Yet, we knew all the lyrics. In addition to analyzing Plato’s cave and Romeo and Juliet, Newsom’s lyrics were incorporated into class. We learned to love it. Marohn played the 16 minute “Only Skin” for us during our final, expecting to grade scholarly essays on her lyricism I still can’t decipher.
Joanna Newsom is certainly an acquired taste. Armed with her harp and unique voice, she writes beautiful, poetic songs. She released two EPs in 2002 and 2003, her first album was The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004, and since then she released the critically acclaimed Ys in 2006, Have One on Me in 2010, and most recently, Divers, earlier this month. I’m not going to attempt to analyze her cryptic, mysterious lyrics, but I do know that she incorporates history, myth, and human truth into her music. Divers is no different, but it does include electric instruments. “Sapokanikan” contains references to the history of Manhattan and alludes to the Shelley poem “Ozymandias.” “Goose Eggs” sounds the most Renaissance-like and describes perhaps the loss of a friendship or relationship, while “Divers” is the longest song, running 7:07, and explores the idea of the effect time has on a relationship. The album starts with the distinct crooning of mourning doves on “Anecdotes” where the first word is “sending,” and ends the same way on “Time, as A Symptom” (which Newsom refers to as the “eleventh” song instead of the “last” song), where the last word is “trans-” creating a perfect loop. Transcending. It is during this song where the theme of the album is confirmed and Newsom sings, “and it pains me to say, I was wrong / Love is not a symptom of time / Time is just a symptom of love.”
As it turns out, Divers is just an album about love, but its songs are so much more than that. None sound sappy, and all feature Newsom’s brilliant songwriting ability that explores mature themes. Newsom seems to have learned about love, perhaps since her marriage to Andy Samberg in 2013, and she expresses new-found knowledge on this album. I’d like to think Newsom and I are in similar places, since her previous album came right about when I entered high school and the newest came as I am now entering college. We’ve both learned more about how it all works, and no matter what Joanna Newsom puts out next, she’ll still have a place as a soothing voice in my angst-ridden teenage years.