It’s a mistake to think you can listen to Joanna Newsom halfheartedly or, worse, in the background. Her byzantine compositions arrest the listener, feeling like portals into an alternate reality that scrambles all sense of time and place. On “Divers,” her breathtaking follow-up to 2010’s “Have One on Me,” the singer, songwriter, and harpist affirms her stature as a visionary. It’s the most streamlined of her four albums, which is an odd thing to say about a tangle of 11 songs humming with immaculate string arrangements, keyboards, guitars, percussion, and Newsom’s mercurial voice, which has grown more resonant. Dig beyond their sophisticated grandeur and the songs beat with a palpable fixation on mortality, the passage of time, and how love, as Newsom recently put it in an interview with Uncut, invited death into her life. On a fifth listen to “Divers,” I suddenly thought of Newsom as her generation’s Yoko Ono or Kate Bush, fellow artists whose music isn’t for the masses. It’s too provocative for that.
ESSENTIAL “Leaving the City”
Joanna Newsom will perform at the Orpheum Theatre on Dec. 6.