Pretty much every single article you read about Joanna Newsom describes her as “idiosyncratic”. It’s a nice way of saying, “this ain’t no easy listening.” For the uninitiated or the hesitant listener – or even for the devout fan – it can be easy to dismiss her complex, obscure lyrics and sometimes mewling voice. To say the least, her music requires work. And an encyclopedia. Using archaic language and references to botany, birds, astronomy and Spanish naval ships, Newsom’s music can feel unapproachable. However, her 2015 album Divers is arguably her most accessible album to date, which is no small feat for an artist who uses words like “hydrocephalitic.” This article will take a selection of lyrics from some of the songs off the album and dismantle them in the hopes of better understanding their meaning. We can look to this album for little gems of wisdom that you can carry around with you and even – dare I say – both questions and practical ways of thinking to guide our lives and decisions. Newsom is proof that activism and art does not have to blunt. It can be embalmed in obscure, radiant and enthralling works of art.
Where you will not mark my leaving
And you will not hear my parting song
Nor is there cause for grieving
Nor is there cause for carrying on
How can we grieve, but also carry on? How do we carry on? After Trump was elected, it really did feel like the world had come to an end. While some felt more compelled than ever to stand in solidarity, others seemed to lose hope entirely. How do we reconcile these two opposing feelings and keep moving forward? Newsom begins the album with these questions.
- Leaving the City
Bleach a collar, leech a dollar
From our cents
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
Oh snap! Newsom is making a reference to blue collars and white (bleached) collared workers. She’s talking about class inequality and capitalist robbery! Without a doubt, this is a reference to “the rent is too damn high” meme. No but seriously, the allusion to the sky, barn and white clouds sounds picturesque and what most city dwellers dream of – but when that is all that one is allowed, what kind of equality is that?
- The Things I Say
What happened to the man you were
When you loved somebody before her?
Did he die?
Or does that man endure, somewhere far away?
Newsom is doing more here than just suggesting that there are alternative worlds for each of your partner’s past relationships. In this present reality where you are with your partner (who loves you), is the part of them that loved their ex the part that loves you? Or does that part disappear with the end of the relationship? Can we really compartmentalize our past relationships and past feelings?
Tell me why is the pain of birth
Lighter borne than the pain of death?
If we entered this world in pain, yet the transcendent joy that a mother experiences at the birth of her child overcomes the pain, than shouldn’t death be be similarly overcome? How can the physical pain of birth be lighter borne than the existential pain of death? Is it because giving birth lasts hours, but preparing for death lasts a lifetime?
- Same Old Man
It’s the same old man sitting at the mill
The mill wheel turning of its own free will
I’m certainly glad to be at home
New York City continues on alone
Yes, life is ephemeral and we are going to die. Yet, what do we do with the places we leave behind?
Interestingly, this is the only song on the album not written by Newsom. Just like how the original composer died, this song has carried on alone. Her cover is enacting the song’s meaning: we die, but our most robust creations live on.
- You Will Not Take My Heart Alive
And I rose, to take my shape at last
From the dreams that had dogged me, through every past
When to my soul the body would say:
You may do what you like
As long as you stay
When Newsom sings about transcendence, she is not talking about transcending the body and moving beyond it. This is the contract that her body and soul agree to: “you may do what you like”, but stay in this body. Somehow, this is very comforting to me and to her as well. Realizing that we are limited to our bodies turns out to not really be a limit after all. Isn’t the universe vast enough already? Who’d want to be an immortal disembodied spirit, roaming through the universe til kingdom come?
- Pin-Light Bent
But it’s mine, or at least it’s lent
And my life until the time is spent,
Is a pin-light, bent
At the risk of sounding like a white person in dreads who flunked out of their philosophy degree, our life force and energy isn’t ours per say – but lent to us from the universe. Newsom builds on this idea to create a metaphor of a light shining through a tiny pin hole in the tapestry of the universe. Where is the source of the light though? It changes what we mean when we talk about “our” lives – as if we owned it. We own our actions and our choices, but not our lives.
- Time, As A Symptom
And it pains me to say, I was wrong
Love is not a symptom of time
Time is just a symptom of love
“Time moves both ways”
In interviews, Newsom refers to this song not as the last song, but as the 11th. It would make sense given the themes of circularity and non teleological temporality throughout the album. Though it might be a circle, she has still reached a conclusion and answered one of her many questions that she poses at the beginning: Love is how we measure time, not the opposite. Love doesn’t grow with time – love is the active agent, not time. Time is just passing indiscriminately. Time is what happens to all of us, but (to) love is a choice that we all make.
It’s difficult to not reduce the never-ending richness of this album “to lessons” or “morals”. If anything, I draw comfort from knowing how such big questions about time, life, love, and death can be both situated in a historical and personal context. As you can probably tell, I’m not a physicist, so explaining or even understanding how things like the speed of light and certain cosmological theories work is difficult for me. Whether Joanna Newsom is “correct” in her references to these complex theories is essentially irrelevant in this context. Rather, the point is to be able to see ourselves as both players in the history of the universe and tiny, seemingly insignificant observers of it. Indeed, Newsom is not demanding the answers, but is instead posing some important questions. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – who was similarly preoccupied with mythology – wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” After all, thinking about these themes and looking to the past is its own kind of activism – political and personal.