One of Joanna Newsom’s many strengths is creating, and then resolving, tension. “Divers,” the title track from her new album, is a master class in this art. The seven-minute track begins with an agitated harp melody plucked over ominous mellotron chords. Newsom, in her distinctively witchy voice, casts a fretful incantation over this instrumental backdrop, which becomes heavier and more discordant with each line. Then, in the space of a measure, all the anxiety melts seamlessly into an exquisitely reassuring chorus: What sounded at first like a warning transforms into a blessing. The song weaves back and forth between minor and major, oppressive and light, desolate and hopeful, and every shift feels improbable yet somehow inevitable.
It’s an ambitious choice of song for the second of Newsom’s music videos directed by her friend P.T. Anderson, better known as the auteur behind There Will Be Blood and The Master. Their first music-video collaboration, for the relatively approachable “Sapokanikan,” was released on YouTube in August and featured a fur-collared Newsom skipping around New York City. The “Divers” video came out this week, and it is far less accessible, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively because the video takes place in a surrealist landscape built in a tank of water by the artist Kim Keever (who also made the cover art for Divers). Literally because the video wasn’t released online—instead, it played for one week only in select movie theaters around the U.S. and Europe.
I caught a screening of the “Divers” video at the IFC Center in Manhattan on Thursday, the final day of its theatrical release. It played before a late-afternoon showing of the Taiwanese film The Assassin, and it seems fair to say that I was the only person there with the express intention of seeing “Divers.” One man got up and left the theater a few seconds into it; a few women sitting nearby whispered throughout. Considering that “Divers” is a song with such dramatic twists and turns, the video is unexpectedly static: It features a giant, translucent Newsom singing while hovering in the background of one of Keever’s landscapes like some kind of deity. Occasionally Anderson cuts to a closeup of Newsom’s lovely, angular face, and then back to the landscape view. Wispy clouds float over Newsom’s face, and then, about halfway through, red, orange, and blue clouds explode into the tank of water, eventually obscuring Newsom completely from view.
In short, it’s a weird video. It’s an especially weird video to spring on unsuspecting audiences who just wanted to see an indie or foreign-language film. I can’t help but think that “Sapokanikan” would have had more of a chance of charming movie-goers, because of both its cheerful melody and its familiar setting. But Newsom has never been too concerned about winning over skeptics: She just does her thing, writing song as they come to her, releasing albums when they’re ready. Anderson and Newsom haven’t spoken publicly about why they released the “Divers” video in theaters instead of online (and they weren’t available for an interview with Slate). But if I had to hazard a guess, it would pretty straightforward: I imagine they thought that only a theatrical setting would do justice to the beauty of Keever’s art. (A fan-recorded version of the video made it online earlier this week, and it was virtually impossible to appreciate the details of Keever’s landscapes on a computer screen.) As for the short duration of the theatrical run, it was likely born of practical considerations, but it makes sense as an aesthetic choice, too. Newsom often sings about ephemeral experiences, the ones that disappear quickly but leave us reeling and wondering in their wake. For many of the people who caught in theaters, whether intentionally or not, the “Divers” video will be one of those experiences.
Update, Oct. 27, 2015: Newsom’s label, Drag City, has released the “Divers” video on YouTube: