New Newsom! Or, excavating Sapokanikan

Joanna Newsom has a new music video. For those of us who have spent the last five years scanning the horizon for a follow-up to her brilliant triple album Have One On Me, this is no small event. The song is called Sapokanikan and you can watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s video here.

Newsom’s music is like Vegemite: some wrinkle their noses at it while others make moonshine.* Just as her voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender defied any notion of what singing should sound like (it’s mellower now), her songwriting is almost perverse in the way she returns to the same melodic and harmonic ideas again and again, while wrapping the loops and filigrees of her lyrics around the metre in counter-intuitive ways. I tend to think that to praise a songwriter by calling her a "poet" is to misunderstand the particular challenges of the two forms. Poems are rarely enriched by music and songs rarely look good on the page. Newsom is a rarity in this respect: I love her music but think her lyrics are even better on paper. In the case of Sapokanikan, it helps to have an encyclopaedia to hand too.

If a song has to be read, dissected, researched to have its full effect, has it really been successful? For most, surely, this kind of tricksy allusion is elitist and pretentious. But for me and a small minority of nerds, the cryptic-crossword challenge of unravelling meaning in this way is something to relish. It’s why I love Nabokov’s puns and Tom Waits’s salvaged dustbowl idioms and the collage of quotations in Berio’s Sinfonia.

So I’ll admit that when I heard Sapokanikan, I printed off the lyrics – already transcribed online by my nerd comrades, of course – sharpened a pencil, and tried to figure out what the song is on about. (You can take the boy out of the English degree, etc.) It was worth it.

What will survive of us is...?

Joanna sets out the stall of her influences in the first line, “The cause is Ozymandian”. Like Shelley’s poem, this is a song about relics, myth and mortality. It’s also about New York City, whose streets she paces in Anderson’s video. “Sapokanikan”, which closes out that deliciously obscure opening couplet, was a Native American name for the area now known as Greenwich Village. The living, noisy, multi-storey city is reimagined here as a “lone and levelled” desert.

“Will you remember?” is the central question the song asks, before furnishing examples of lives and loves buried and hidden and painted over. There are the bones hidden by the old Dutch master, the Titian painting discovered under Tobias and the angel, Arthur Streeton’s lost sweetheart Florry Walker. There’s John Purroy Mitchel, New York’s “boy mayor” who defied the corrupt kingmakers of Tammany Hall before his death in a plane crash. There are those who were never famous in the first place, buried in potters’ fields, who will never be excavated or studied.

These characters place the song within what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America”, buried and mostly forgotten. There’s a sense of the hollowness of any attempt at memorial, be it through monument, flag or song (“The brave-men-and-women-so-dear-to-God/And-famous-to-all-of-the-ages rag”). These men and women are not famous to all of the ages; if they were, I wouldn’t have had to hit up Google in the first place. Those listeners who bother to piece together the shards of story become like the hunter in the song’s final verse, deciphering the stone. The lyric is not merely obscure but about obscurity, “cryptic at best”, its meaning half-sunk.

[An aside – do we think Joanna actually uses Wikipedia? As so often with folk musicians, I want to imagine her in a corner of New York Public Library, blowing dust off a tome about Theodore Roosevelt. The idea of her on a Google deep dive doesn’t fit so well with her image. But then I didn’t expect her to marry the Dick In A Box guy.]

Anyway. Other textual echoes bounce off the lyric too. In the background is the whole tradition of the elegy from the Greeks to Thomas Gray and beyond. The “parks where pale colonnades arch in marble and steel” call to mind the colonnaded ruins in Surf’s Up, by Brian Wilson and Newsom’s erstwhile collaborator Van Dyke Parks. And there’s a strong flavour of Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, my favourite lines of which are this haiku-like distillation of time passing:

Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.

Here too, “idling bird calls” soundtrack the long, slow process of forgetting. And just as Larkin’s almost-truth that “What will survive of us is love” jumps out arrestingly from the page, Newsom has a way of cutting from verbose obscurities to nakedly emotional lines like “Will you tell the one that I love to remember and hold me”. Here is the beating heart that pumps blood into the lyric. Here is the poetry that makes the Wikipedia scavenger hunt worthwhile.

The album (Divers) is out on 23 October. On CD, mp3, vinyl and – wait for it – cassette. Hunters, decipherers, nerds, rejoice.


*Except they probably don't.