Joanna Newsom is the ultimate marmite artist. With her 2004 debut album, the Milk-Eyed Mender, she was pigeonholed as the ‘indie-pop Olive Oyl’, a reference to antediluvian cartoon character Popeye’s croaking girlfriend.
To some, her alien trill was fascinatingly unconventional. Many, however, considered it a deal-breaker — how to take seriously a singer whose frisky ululations seemed an open-and-shut example of weird for weirdness’s sake?
Eleven years and four albums later, the fundamentals of Newsom’s sound remain unchanged. She returned with Divers, freshly minted as minor movie star (she was the gauzy narrator of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice) and recently married to comedian/actor, Andy Samberg.
Yet, as a recording artist Newsom is preserved in aspic, her voice still stellar and squeaky, her harp-playing as brain-bendingly obtuse as it was a decade ago.
What’s different is that Newsom is more open to mainstream success. That seems to be the ultimate goal of single, ‘Sapokanikan’ (with a video directed by Anderson), in which her parping comes off as uncharacteristically purposeful (there’s a chorus, if you pay attention).
Elsewhere, though, it’s the same old Newsom who, on ‘Anecdotes’ combines baffling word play (“Sending the first scouts over/back from the place beyond the dawn”) with a woozy mix of harp and mellotron and, on ‘Time, As A Symptom’, founders amid an overwrought arrangement.
She is most digestible when unadorned, as testified by the stripped-down ‘A Pin-Light Bent’, where she coos and caws, as a single harp note chimes winsomely in the background.
It’s a reminder that less is more — a lesson followers of Newsom will already know only too well.
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