Joanna Newsom: "Sapokanikan"

from Divers (Drag City; 2015)

By Maura McAndrew | 28 August 2015

Joanna Newsom’s songs tend to feel like stories. Even if there isn’t always a clear beginning, middle, and end, there’s a sense of a tale unfolding, and the telling is much like a folktale: recounted from memory, different with each telling. Her new single “Sapokanikan”—from Divers, her first record in five years, out this October—is no exception.

The title refers to a Native American (Lenape) village that once existed on Manhattan, before Dutch settlers arrived in 1629 and eventually changed its name to Greenwich Village. “Sapokanikan” is a great song title, not only because it prompts inquiring music fans to learn some American history, but also because as soon as you learn what it means, you recognize its weight. “Sapokanikan” is, inescapably, a word that represents colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples. And when Newsom’s history lesson is juxtaposed with Paul Thomas Anderson’s video of modern-day Greenwich Village, its meaning grows larger, encompassing the idea of gentrification and displaced communities still very much an issue in the New York of today.

Newsom’s lyrics draw quite literally upon this specific history (she sings of King Tamanend/Tamany, a folk hero who negotiated relationships between European settlers and Native Americans) and traces its echoes through different eras, including a discussion of John Purroy Mitchel, New York’s famous “Boy Mayor” of the early 1900s. The overall theme of “Sapokanikan” is the ways in which histories like these are buried and forgotten, replaced easily in a city that’s constantly updating and reinventing itself. “A hundred years from now may look and despair,” Newsom sings, “And see with wonder / The tributes we have left to rust in the parks,” ending with these lines: “Go out, await the hunter to decipher the stone / And what lies under the city is gone.”

The sound of “Sapokanikan” doesn’t stray too far from Newsom’s previous work, though it feels a bit more reigned in than the ambitious songs on Have One on Me (2010) and Ys (2006). In the most superficial difference, the song is fairly compact at just over five minutes, and features a warm piano-and-bells background, still intimate but less sparse than Have One on Me. One comparison that springs to mind when listening to “Sapokanikan” is Fiona Apple, particularly her last album The Idler Wheel… (2012). Newsom and Apple began on different sides of the same spectrum, but are moving closer to each other in sound as Apple becomes more experimental. However, Newsom remains a unique presence, her warbling voice an acquired taste as ever, but stunning once you acquire it. “Sapokanikian”’s biggest asset is its breathless, swirling structure; Newsom tells her story deliberately and quickly, and the song’s pace works beautifully with Anderson’s video, long tracking shots of Newsom gliding around the city in winter.

“Sapokanikan” indicates that Joanna Newsom has, characteristically, put a lot of thought into Divers, and in turns expects listeners to be thoughtful as well. Newsom’s talent as a songwriter is the way she challenges her listeners to dig deeper, and to listen more closely. And if we can keep up with her, we might learn something.