The powers of director Paul Thomas Anderson and actress/songwriter Joanna Newsom combine yet again with the arrival of dramatic new song “Sapokanikan.”
The music video — directed by the “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” helmer — follows Newsom through New York, more specifically in Greenwich Village, which yields a history lesson “Sapokanikan.”
Sapokanikan is an actual place: it was tiny country town, a Lenape Indian village for trade, it's name meaning “tobacco field.” The area was then overtaken by the Dutch — as much of modern-day Manhattan was — in the early 1600s. And, obviously since then, the land has changed hands and geography, its past buried underneath the concrete and street lamps by which Newsom traverses during her new tale.
Like a lot of the singer-songwriter's tunes, this new one is a hike of words, a journey of its own, as she refers to “parks where pale colonnades arch in marble in stone,” American folk legends, the interment of bodies and the paupers' ditches at Hart Island, a Dutch “master,” the hand of God/power/time, New York's “boy mayor” John Purroy Mitchell (who died in World War I). These persons and their personal stories are buried underneath New York's leveled streets, like the name of an unrequited lover beneath layers of paint (hence the reference to Florry Walker in a painting by Australian painter Arthur Streeton).
Newsom opens by saying this poem and tune is about an “Ozymandian” fate; Ozymandias, of course, being the subject of the poem about great monuments of great men whose names are lost to time (“Look and despair,” she says in closing). She is crying by the video's end, as she marches past the whirring lights of emergency vehicles.
To me, it's a lamentation: that no matter what excavations and “x-rays” of New York's past you make, “the records they left are cryptic at best / Lost in obsolescence” and death. A “hand” writes history, but a master's hand can also write the wrong version of history, and can kill, bury and idle.
It is, lyrically, a “masterful” song.
“Sapokanikan” is the first track to arrive from Newsom's new album “Divers,” out on October 23 via Drag City.
Newsom acted in P.T. Anderson's last film “Inherent Vice,” as Earth goddess/narrator and imaginary friend Sortilège.