Of all the sci-fi tropes that find themselves between the pages of novels, on theater screens, or on the minds of the curious, few provide as disorienting or thought-provoking an experience as time travel. From existential consequences of changing the past, to inescapable loops that imply some universal fate, interpretations of time travel are as varied as they are difficult to fully grasp. But there is one factor Marty McFly, Samurai Jack, Hermione Granger, and Dr. Who all have in common: they handle time travel really well. Sure, they may be disoriented upon their arrival in a different time, but they adjust quickly.
Where was Marty’s personal crisis when he realized he was being erased from existence? Why did his memories remain intact while his photograph changed? Is taking more classes really a good enough reason to trust a 14 year-old Hermione with a time-turner? Why does this seem so normal to everyone? Perhaps traditionally plot-driven media isn’t the best for exploring the incomprehensible emotions one would feel when facing the malleability of time. Maybe this is better suited for a more subtle art form: music. And maybe singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom is the perfect person for the job.
Newsom’s fourth studio album, Divers, is one of the most human time travel stories out there, with an equal mix of plot-based songs and pondering about time in general. The album’s opener, “Anecdotes,” drops us into a soldiers’ camp, possibly at the beginning of a war. Scouts are being sent back from “beyond the dawn,” in shock from whatever they found on their journey. We don’t know it yet, but while the protagonist and the rest of her camp pass through time at the same rate that we do, these scouts are returning from another time. Newsom is quick to point out that neither of these perspectives are necessarily correct when the passing of time is a subjective experience. One of the soldiers, Rufous Nightjar, even asks her, “When are you from?”
Later, on “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne Elite,” we find out how much Newsom’s protagonist is struggling with the inconsistency of the time travel war these soldiers are fighting in, saying:
“But there was a time we were lashed to the prow
Of a ship you may board, but not steer
Before You and I ceased to mean Now
And began to mean only Right Here”
Calling back to Nightjar’s question, Newsom laments the loss of the concept of “now,” as it is replaced by something more similar to location. Relocation in time has become as simple as moving from A to B, making it another coordinate we traverse at our own pace. This shakes her relationship with her lover, who is fighting in “the war between us and our ghosts.” In “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” she contemplates which part of life he will remember most: looking up at the stars from Earth, or looking back down at the lights of the cities and highways. The struggle of waiting gives way to a more complicated one once time can be manipulated and traveled through in both directions.
The insignificance of these struggles is explored in the fast-forwarded history of “Sapokanikan.” In it, Newsom jumps to and from events in the seventeenth through twenty-first centuries, starting with the native origins of Manhattan. Sharing images of reused canvases, mass graves from forgotten wars, passing seasons, and tainted political legacies, she ponders what, if anything, will be remembered of her.
The album ends on a distress call from a ship to Nightjar as it approaches a superdense “white star,” or white dwarf, as the meter of the lyrics and rhythm section come apart into a phasing pattern, replicating the effect of time flowing at different rates. A white dwarf is one possible result of a star’s death and an example of the finality of all things. The message, “White star, white ship – Nightjar, transmit: transcend!” is sent out on repeat until the inevitable end cuts off the final syllable, leaving us with “trans-”. The word is completed in the present tense when the album is started over, with the line, “Sending the first scouts over” opening the album’s first track. With the looping effect of the lyrics, it seems likely that the scouts were investigating the mysterious transmission sent back in time, which triggers the events of the whole album.
The meditations on time are also not limited to the content of the album, attaching themselves to its release and promotion. For being just shy of 6 months old, Divers does not seem of its time. The video for “Sapokanikan,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was released in theaters, mirroring how early music videos, or “song films,” were shown before the days of YouTube or MTV. In an age where more and more artist are dropping labels in favor of self-releasing their music, the album is Joanna Newsom’s fourth for Drag City Records. It is also unavailable on any of the major streaming services. This is almost unheard of in the digital, on-demand age. Even the notoriously anti-Spotify Taylor Swift streams her music on Apple Music and Tidal.
Yet, Joanna Newsom remains with us on our minute-by-minute journey to the ever-evasive future, looking forward and behind simultaneously. With its many historical homages, traditional and experimental instrumentation, wild song structures, and deeply conceptual plot, Divers will be remembered as a defining album of the decade created by an artist that is somehow stuck in the past, exactly of her own time, and way ahead of the curve all at the same time.