fri 21/02/2020

Joanna Newsom, Eventim Apollo | reviews, news & interviews

Joanna Newsom, Eventim Apollo

Joanna Newsom, Eventim Apollo

Less is more, in a live show of spare acoustic beauty

Joanna Newsom: new-found substance

There were no shouts of “You’re a genius!” from the Hammersmith crowd last night, as there have been earlier in Newsom’s tour. But there were the shrill gasps of astonishment and adulation you would usually find at a One Direction gig, or during a tense rally at Wimbledon, not from a mature, West London audience attending a recital of harp and song. Live, her voice is fresh, and the accompaniments clearer than on record, which allows the incredible range and ambition of her compositions to stand out.

Newsom played mostly from the new album Divers, but there was enough from earlier releases to provide a useful sense of her development. She began with “Bridges and Balloons”, from the 2004 album Milk-Eyed Mender. Her swooping vocal line and ornate harmonies have changed less than the lyrics, which used to cloy with an unbearably overheated, saccharine quality. Describing a bird cage, this song goes: "Catenaries and dirigibles / Brace and buoy the living-room / A loom of metal, warp woof wimble.” Even with an acrobatic melody and supporting instrumental lines to add context, I had always found it difficult to take seriously. Yet live, with the purer, more balanced and less processed sound, the song had an innocence that at least attempted to dignify its dreaminess.

Sometimes the sheer sweat of her lyrics and arrangements detract from their final impact

“Divers”, the title song of her latest release, and arguably its highlight, is a multi-layered song of bereaved love, in which Newsom’s allusiveness and lyrical flair have a subject that fits the weight of their ambition. The slimmed-down accompaniment gave its words space to breathe. “Sapokanikan”, meanwhile, a hugely complicated story about the history of violence and oppression, focusing on Native American Manhattan, was likewise much easier to follow as a kind of piano ballad than in Paul Thomas Anderson’s stirring but disorienting video, while “Peach Plum Pear”, a hugely popular encore, gave her long-term fans the gorgeous acoustic harp sound to match the emotional introspection. In each case, these songs had a simple power live that the voice-dominated, processed recording can’t quite match.   

Her excellent and multi-talented band worked hard to keep up, often changing instruments mid-song to stay with the arrangements. It gave the event a studious rather than seductive atmosphere, not that you would guess from the ecstatic audience. The opportunity to hear the full scope of the arrangements enhanced the sense of Newsom as a songwriter with a folk heritage. There were touches of rock guitar, and at the other end of the scale, hints of the lute and song of John Dowland, but again and again, from Mirabai Peart’s Celtic violin to Ryan Francesconi’s bluegrass banjo (and much else besides) the extent of Newsom’s integration with the folk repertoire, and the ambition of her compositions, became apparent.   

Between the flyover and the bus station, a little milky moon, about the size of a thimble, peeped out

It was good value, at over 90 minutes of both emotional and technical intensity, with two encores. One conclusion of a programme like this is how much she has improved as a songwriter. For much of Divers, she has trained her formidable intelligence on more substantial material than earlier in her career, and the seriousness of the subject matter gives her extraordinary musical imagination the breadth of canvas it needs to express itself fully.

Any sensible critic will want time and distance before going anywhere near the g-word. Last night’s performance was dazzling, original and highly memorable. For me, the effects are still too strenuous. It’s very clear, seeing her live, with all of the re-arrangements of instrumentation, and hearing the lyrics more clearly than on her albums, how self-conscious her artistry is. Sometimes the sheer sweat of her lyrics and arrangements detract from their final impact. The listener is too exhausted to be moved, somehow.

But there’s no doubt her audience was moved to an extraordinary degree. “And a thimblesworth of milky moon / Can touch hearts larger than a thimble,” she sang. Unusually for Hammersmith, in the sodium-orange sky, between the flyover and the bus station, a little milky moon, about the size of a thimble, peeped out.

For much of 'Divers', she has trained her formidable intelligence on more substantial material


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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