On her new album, Joanna Newsom—like writer Elena Ferrante and country singer Iris DeMent—performs a vanishing act, in order to make her audience see her more clearly.
Something happens on the front of the much-praised new album by Joanna Newsom, Divers. Unlike on her previous three, the cover of the 33-year-old singer-composer’s first record in five years does not include a picture or portrait of her, nor anyone: It is a lush landscape of wildflowers and cloud cover, with nary a figure to be seen.
It reminds me in a way of the widely despised covers of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s otherwise acclaimed, recently completed series of “Neapolitan novels.” Critics have called the look of the English-language editions cheesy and kitschy, like “Hallmark cards or bad romance novels.” Booksellers have told me they’ve seen straight men hesitate to pick up the books and ask girlfriends or wives, “Why don’t you buy it and I’ll borrow it?” The publishers themselves have said they are playing a “game” of “dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity,” suiting the books’ main setting, an impoverished and brazenly uncouth district of Naples.
Like their author, then, who famously keeps her real-life identity a secret, Ferrante’s books wear a disguise. But it is an evasion that also imparts a truth. Their epic story is a work of melodrama, crime fiction, neo-realist history, romance, political intrigue, social theory, and psychology. But it is also what’s traditionally called “women’s fiction,” in that the domestic and personal struggles of the female leads are its paramount concern. So if the quartet is draped in that genre’s conventionally “girly” costume, whose problem is it, except anyone who doesn’t believe that women’s stories are as real and meaningful as men’s? Rather deliciously, the designs require men (and other snobs) to submit to some potential minor social embarrassment to partake of the books’ riches.
That honest camouflage is of a piece with Ferrante’s pseudonymity, her self-described “structural absence.” As she observed as a young reader of Jane Austen, that withdrawal has many advantages for a female artist. For one, it resists the common reflex to treat women’s creations as merely confessional or, at best, side effects of character, to be judged more socially and morally than artistically. Removing her mundane self from consideration means the work can be “intensely, violently personal,” yet remain privately so. Which is to say, genuinely public.
On Divers, without taking it quite so far, Newsom carries out a similarly shrewd self-effacement. The reception of her last album, Have One on Me, was clogged with gossip that it was an account of her breakup with the older, brilliantly doursongwriter Bill Callahan and her new relationship with the (brilliant in his own way)Saturday Night Live comedian Andy Samberg, now her husband.
Even before that, she’d had to contend with reductive caricatures due to her California-counterculture background, esoteric lyrics, atypical voice, and use of a concert harp as her primary instrument. She’s often portrayed either as a twee, “elfin” hippie chick or as an “ethereal” harp-and-heart-strings-plucking siren; several Divers reviewers have pointed this out, but often with such emphasis as to perpetuate it. (Granted, some of her fans share the blame.) And now she had been velvet-roped into the shooting range of the paparazzi, too.
When Tavi Gevinson of Rookie asked in their conversation last week about Divers’lack of a cover image of the artist, Newsom answered, a bit enigmatically, that her covers always have been “portraits of the narrator of the record … me, usually, but a me with certain aspects really concentrated or exaggerated. Other aspects [are] removed because they’re not relevant to the record. … This album cover is no different.”
So the aspect of Newsom removed as irrelevant this time is … all of her? Or all except the elements that are metaphorically, or by some chain of subatomic or spiritual connection, wildflowers and clouds? Perhaps. Newsom’s verse always has recalled the nature-drunk zeal of the Romantic poets, albeit with better jokes. There is a hidden joke here, too, since the image is not of an actual location, but one of New York artist Kim Keever’s constructions from plaster, cotton fluff, and paint, photographed suspended in an aquarium tank of water.