In the video for Joanna Newsom's first new work in five years, "Sapokanikan," the harpist-pianist-singer-composer-actor strolls through Manhattan in long takes while singing kaleidoscopic lyrics. Around her the city sparkles. As she moves, Newsom stares into the camera and offers a vivid recounting of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake."
Just kidding about that last part. The dense lyrics are nearly impenetrable and connect old Manhattan with Tammany Hall, its Dutch ancestry and lost time while sophisticated sound swirls, at various points mixing piano, bells, percussion, whistles, bass and brass.
With the song's surprise arrival comes news that Newsom will release "Divers," her first studio album since 2010's epic "Have One on Me" and fourth overall. According to her label's press release, the genre-transcendent artist's forthcoming album was recorded "with snow-bright, high-noon-verity by Steve Albini and Noah Georgeson, mixed in phantasmagoric, deep-sea-saturation by Noah and Joanna, and loosed … FINALLY, on October 23rd by Drag City Records." She collaborated on the album's arrangements with acclaimed composer Nico Muhly, Dirty Projectors founder Dave Longstreth and her longtime band mate Ryan Francesconi.
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Newsom's work as a singing harpist-composer first drew attention with the release of her 2004 album "The Milk-Eyed Mender," and in the time since she's gracefully moved into the mainstream without diluting her creativity. The artist recently crossed disciplines to narrate and act in Paul Thomas Anderson's film "Inherent Vice," and her red-carpet appearances with her husband, the comedic actor Andy Samberg, have drawn tabloid attention from a demographic likely to be baffled by her music.
Which is to say, she's not competing with Ariana Grande on "Sapokanikan," named for an ancient settlement that inhabited what is now Greenwich Village. The musical stroll has little time for pop conventions either instrumentally or structurally.
It moves through time signatures while Our Heroine sings of snowfall, hunters of the future, early 20th century mayor of New York John Purroy Mitchel, the Tammany Hall political machine, an airplane departure, cryptic texts and records, a mysterious woman named Florry Walker, marble, steel and many other curious allusions crying for annotation or dissertation.
Musically, the piece mixes Brecht with the baroque, hints at "Hejira"-era Joni Mitchell and (as my colleague Mikael Wood pointed out) possesses Fiona Apple's sense of drama. Opening with a gentle, timeless tangle of piano and snare drum, the song defiantly avoids the contemporary, dotting through decades with each measure. It approaches bombast halfway in but retreats, moves into a drunken waltz, spins in circles as Newsom harmonizes with herself in layers before landing in a different musical environment to close.
In the Anderson-directed video, that climax is punctuated by the flashing red and blue lights of sirens. They alight Newsom's face, reflecting tears welling in her eyes. It's a striking moment, but answers no questions and offers little resolution.
The only constant is how untethered "Sapokanikan" feels.