“Leaving the City” is one of the most complex compositions on Divers, Joanna Newsom’s new album. Newsom has told interviewers that in order to represent the overlapping rhythms of harp, piano, marxophone, mellotron, and drums, she had to create her own notational language with “these crescent moons and squares and triangles.” Needless to say, it was an ambitious choice for her to perform the song live, with only her harp to accompany her, on the BBC’s Later … With Jools Holland. Without other instruments to serve as a safety net, one errant pluck could throw the entire song into chaos.
Newsom nailed it, proving that she’s as virtuosic a performer as she is a composer. Her right hand, left hand, and voice all seemed to operate independently, and watching her work is so impressive it almost distracts from the beauty of the song. But the acoustic arrangement is lovely, and far less dissonant than the studio version, which makes it a great introduction to the complicated grace of Newsom’s music.