“Goose Eggs” compiles perhaps the widest range of styles and instruments, boasting the congested wurlitzer and chameleonic promise of a 1978 synth (the Baldwin Discoverer), the false antiquity of the Baldwin Electric Harpsichord, a Neupert Clavichord, two Fender Rhodes Pianos, (all played by Newsom), “five glorious seconds of Hammond BZ organ” and, finally, electric guitar, played with a twang that gives the densely orchestrated song an air of playfulness. This track’s narrative involves throwing back whiskey with a pal and speaking, with frazzled acceptance, of “the scrambling of broken hopes” and, because it’s a Joanna Newsom song, “lost goose eggs.” But though it flits about with a nonchalance you won’t hear on the rest of the album, the bounteous instruments used here indicate how Newsom is composing an army of transcultural (elsewhere on the album: bouzouki! baglama! banjo!), time-travelling sounds to back her up in her poetic confrontations with finitude. Just after this track, Newsom illustrates, in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” World War IV. But here, it’s a war we’re constantly fighting, “a war between us and our ghosts,” and so Newsom grapples with the seeming inevitability of her — and her loved ones’ — own.
It’s perfect that the list of instruments employed on the album escalates, until the album’s very last moment, where she just says “fuck it” and enlists an entire philharmonic orchestra. It is in this final track — the aforementioned “Time, as a Symptom” — that the seeming core of the album is revealed. As Entertainment Weekly first mentioned, Newsom told Uncut that “death stops being abstract [when you’re in love], because there’s someone you can’t bear to lose. It’s like a little shade of grief that comes in when love is its most real version. Then it contains death inside of it, and then that death contains love inside of it.” For Newsom, it’d seem that Andy Samberg fuels the keen contemplation of mortality, but for the purposes of not imagining Jizz-in-My-Pants encroaching on these more universal notions, let’s just say it’s love in general. Here, Newsom sings that “Love is not a symptom of time. Time is a symptom of love.”
It may help to think of the final track as akin to the Large Hadron Collider, a giant, molecularly transcending loop that sparked hyperbolically phrased debates over whether it’d produce a) God particles and/or b) the destruction of the whole fucking universe. (This connection to the song doesn’t seem quite as bizarre a claim if you know that Newsom likened the album to Interstellar.) Once the track accelerates — a movement enabled by David Longstreth’s arrangements for the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra — it splits Newsom’s otherwise fluid sentences into fragmentary commands. “White star, white ship–Nightjar, transmit: trans—,” Newsom chants, and suddenly ceasing mid-word, the album ends.
Incidentally, the Large Hadron Collider is being turned up to its highest level this week, with the goal of creating tiny black holes that’d open doors to a parallel universe, in mind. This album arrives during a time where a machine is similarly leading people to question whether its grand finale will be to transcend space-time or, simply (for the especially alarmist), end the world. The fact that these questions now appear a matter of imminent science — rather than myth/religion — gives Newsom’s album a heightened sense of timeliness.
Divers is a monumental album in which monuments are brought up for their proneness to crumble, their inability to remain beyond their — as a line in “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” goes — “great simulacreage.” But it wonders, with the ultimate inconclusiveness of that last line, if the physical/temporal restraints on the human condition could shift. In “Sapokanikan,” Newsom sings that “the causes we die for are lost in the idling bird call.” And so perhaps its best to say that there’s both victory and despair, existing as parallel possibilities, when the album ends with either a death or a transcendence, underscored by birdcalls — the indifferent, (and especially as Jonathan Franzen likes to point out, also fleeting) presences that are left. The question it leaves open — as it simultaneously creates a tragic death and a transcendent bridge — is one that makes Divers one of the affecting reflections of our philosophical, scientific and emotional moment recently made into an album.