Let’s talk about voice, and such things…
Dorian Sinclair: There is the sprawling song structure with no clear verse/chorus demarcation. There are the abstruse lyrics stuffed with historical allusion and ten-dollar vocabulary. There is, of course, her perpetually-debated voice (though over the dozen years since The Milk-Eyed Mender that voice has grown much more polished). Fortunately, these are all traits I appreciate. I love some of the melodic passages in “Sapokanikan”, in particular the stanzas beginning “Sang: Do you love me?” and “I fell, I tried to do well”. I find the lyrics evocative, where they aren’t being educational. (I know so much more about NYC’s early 20th-century municipal politics now!) And her voice, her much-maligned voice, is something to which I have always felt the reaction is disproportionate; scads of male singers have voices ranging from untrained to downright unpleasant, and they don’t attract nearly the scrutiny. “Sapokanikan” isn’t going to change any minds about Joanna Newsom — but it does demonstrate that five years away hasn’t diminished her ability to do her thing and do it well.
Anthony Easton: It’s so mannered. Even if everything in her voice would be alright, it’s so shredded in its attempt to convince that something mediocre is unique or special. I don’t know why she makes the aesthetic choices she makes, except perhaps to attempt an avant-garde gesture — but it’s not even fully committed to that. It seems juvenile and precious, a half-hearted rip off of artists who are more interesting, or more difficult. Or more easy — Björk and Galas and Pallett and Tagaq and Monk and Ono and Roberts, or even Amos at her weirdest, have a wide variation of constructed sounds and constructed meanings. That this comes in on one signal, and leaves on one signal, reads to me as a kind of japery.
Katherine St Asaph: Artists like Joanna Newsom prove the rock press’s pool of references shallow. As a writer I’m reminded of Christine Fellows and her omnivorous references; as an arranger, maybe Polly Pen; as a vocalist, maybe Sandra Lockwood or Marnie Stern or — oh, you know, the obvious. Someone trained, at any rate; someone whose every vocal turn is deliberate and knowing. But as dismayingly always, “Sapokanikan” is easier to respect than love, and even if I was in the mood for it I suspect I’d still find it sprawling.
Jonathan Bradley: I will not pretend to be overly familiar with Newsom’s catalogue, but I enjoy particularly her work on The Milk-Eyed Mender as indie whimsy done right: not to suggest infantalism or coy evasion, but to evoke fantasy in as proper a genre exercise as that of any other medium. (Cair Paravel fit there as well as it did in C.S. Lewis.) “Sapokanikan” is precious, but in its frills it suggests, rather, a theatrical revue, or perhaps an audition for the same. Well, good: I will sit through this until the next act comes on.
Thomas Inskeep: This sounds like a smudged, eighth-generation xerox of an early Kate Bush single, stripped of any of its wit, charm, or art, from Newsom’s affected vocals down to her music-hall piano.
Maxwell Cavaseno: Newsom’s voice has never been all that suitable for me, but it seems as if she’s gone full Laura Nyro and embraced the latent Broadway potential always so dangerously pulsing beneath singer-songwriter type artists. A lovely detour from the harps that made me stare and look around in worry with Ys, but still the kind of territory that leaves me cold and feeling unwelcome, like someone who refuses to turn up the A/C in their house, despite your wearing a sweatshirt in July.
Alfred Soto: She sounds less showbiz composing and accompanying her melodies on harp. After a few months I learned to admire 2010’s Have One On Me because it didn’t sound like “Sapokanikan.”
Megan Harrington: If I may, I think Joanna Newsom sings too much here. It’s a bit like hearing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” end on end for 4:45 and then a lovely 30 second instrumental fade out. However, Newsom’s medium is the album and though she presents “Sapokanikan” out of context, it will never fully make sense until I’ve listened to her album at dawn for six straight months. This is not a good single, but it is a dense double stitch, the sort of thing that might tie Newsom’s looser threads together.
Ramzi Awn: The glittering keys are the highlight on “Sapokanikan.” As always, Newsom’s voice makes or breaks any song of hers. As far as influences go, it is easy to hear them all. But it can’t be ignored that the composer brings something original to the table. “Sapokanikan” survives itself nicely, but it could use more of the originality that has rendered Newsom relevant in the first place.
Brad Shoup: It’s been a good and terrible few years for tilling the earth of this strange nation. The dead have always called, and perhaps they’re starting to be heard. “Sapokanikan” is a blithe haunting, a negative-image version of a touristy bus jaunt. Here are the unmarked graves under a Greenwich Village park, there’s the memorial to the dead mayor who took on Tammany Hall, everywhere the dead people of Lenapehoking. The last thirty seconds showcase a stately folksy figure: something ancient, but not ancient enough. Bygone NYC extends much further back than the gutted artists’ playground of the 1970s. Newsom leans into the song like it’s an excised verse from “Good Intentions Paving Company” — there’s even a mention of being held, which you know is gonna get me. The classic PTA lilt snookers you into sticking around for the gloomy yet lightly-touched reverie; the percussionist (Neal Morgan?) keeps popping in like a passing Salvation Army drummer. The effect is Pynchonian, but instead of his showoff nihilism, Newsom tenders her resignation.
Danilo Bortoli: Little before Newsom announced Divers a couple weeks ago, I caught myself meditating on how much time has passed since the release of Have One On Me. Much like a colleague of mine, I was a totally different person. I was starting high school and was just beginning to understand my own taste when Newsom released that gigantic two-hour disc. Newsom frightened me back then, yet the opulence was only one of the aspects that had me coming back to HOOM and, particularly, Ys. So, it’s hard not to see a comeback as the end of a life and artistic cycle. And a what a cycle: “Sapokkanikan” is Newsom’s simplest song in more than a decade (“Will you tell the one that I love to remember and hold me?,” she even says). It’s also her most blatant attempt at a pop song yet. Things do not change that much: references are still as obscure as they have ever been, details re-emerge with every new listen. This is a song about history itself, and just like its primary subject it leaves you powerless and awestruck. For all of its thematic ambition, the piano in the beginning suggests modesty. The brass fanfares are gentle sounding. The song clocks at just the right time. It took Newsom ten years to reach this kind of balance between the literate and the mundane and the populist. It will still take me a lifetime to understand her importance.