For her first new song in five years, Joanna Newsom is giving us a lesson in Native American history. ‘Sapokanikan’ – the first track to be taken from her fourth album ‘Divers’ – is named after an area of land in the cove of New York’s Hudson River. It’s where the Native American people known as the Lenape once settled, and is now known as Gansevoort Street in the city’s bohemian Greenwich Village.
At some points, it seems as if Newsom is singing about the settlers’ legacy (“The map o’ Sapokanikan is centered and devilled/The landowning leveled by some unrecorded and powerful hand,” she sings at the track’s start, adding later “the records they left are cryptic at best”). But, at others, she seems to be putting herself into the story and imagining herself as part of the group, like when she trills about seeing someone “depart for the western front where I walk my cow.”
Musically, it’s a familiar sound of horns, piano and flute combining into something pretty, elegant and enchantingly old-fashioned. Here, they bounce just as the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video (who Newsom worked with on Inherent Vice) shows her skipping through the Village streets, capturing the calm of a snowy day and the pretty scenery of the night as she goes. As she wanders around, her voice goes from soothing and soft to shrill, Kate Bush dramatics. Lyrically, ‘Sapokanikan’ might be bookish, but its melodies are more than infectious enough to leave it ringing in your head long after its five minute run time has passed.