TRACK MARKS: Best of 2015 – “Sapokanikan” by Joanna Newsom

Our Track Marks feature spotlights individual songs that contributors love. Looking back at the year, we’ve selected some of our favorite songs from albums that don’t appear on our Best Albums of 2015 list.

By this point it would be fruitless to come to a Joanna Newsom record with any expectations; she’s made a career of defying them. It can make her difficult for new listeners to approach but it’s also why she’s one of our most thrilling artists. There are constants throughout her four LPs thus far: the distinctive (some would say unbearable) voice, the ornate instrumentation, the GRE-vocab-level lyrics. Tagged as an elfin maid after her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom zigged away from her freak-folk persona by putting out the sort of five-song suite that wouldn’t be out of place in the Renaissance, and her 2015 album sees her forging down another unforeseen path. Borne from the opposite inspiration of her previous record, 2010’s Have One on Me which was a three-disc eulogy for a dying relationship, Divers finds Newsom tackling another kind of darkness: the abstract, contradictory fear of loss that comes with being deeply happy.

This thematic through-line is perhaps least immediately evident in lead single “Sapokanikan” which both begins and ends with references to Shelley’s immortal poem of power’s futility “Ozymandias.” History, as the Trump-ian saying goes, is written by the winners, though Newsom’s not interested in known quantities but what lies underneath; the title is taken from a Native American settlement that, prior to the Dutch colonization of Manhattan, was located approximately in the area known nowadays as Greenwich Village (which is also where, in the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video, Newsom cheekily frolics.) Unfolding over a vast, unpredictable arrangement that recalls ragtime with a regimental beat, the lyrics weave a tale of empires conquered and chastened, lands recorded and erased, Newsom taking on various personas whose fate was molded and cast aside by greater unseen hands. “Will you tell the one that I loved to remember, and hold me?” she pleads at one point, but there is no answer for her as there isn’t for any of us.

If Newsom is interested in darkness here she’s also consumed by cycles, particularly those imposed by time, which marched on for those before us and will do so again. “The city is gone,” she sings at the song’s end, “look and despair.” But Divers is ultimately a tribute to love manifested as an echo, the final song “Time as a Symptom” cutting off in the middle of the word “transcend.” It’s startling at first but it’s also an invitation to turn the record on again, which begins with the word “sending,” thus closing the loop opened at the end. It’s an artist reaching out her hand to bring you back into her world, and ignore the advance of time a little longer.