October 22, 2015 5:50 AM EDT

Joanna Newsom’s new album, Divers, out Oct. 23, opens and closes with the sound of hooting owls. It’s in keeping with the harpist and singer-songwriter’s weirdly beautiful style, which makes use of her warbling soprano, an obscure vocabulary and influences from places as far-flung as Bulgaria and West Africa. For the last decade, she’s been cast as alt music’s quirky woodland nymph–though that characterization has a way of cheapening just how profound she can be.

The compositions on Divers are less sprawling than on her previous albums–but even where they favor the spartan over the orchestral, they trade in weightier material. In the jaunty “Sapokanikan,” she recalls the death of the Lenape tribe that once inhabited New York; in “A Pin-Light Bent,” she wrestles with her own mortality. Here she’s diving for existential pearls: “How do you choose your name? How do you choose your life?” she pleads on the title track. She may not have answers, but it’s a sheer pleasure to hear her pose the questions.


This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com.

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