“The cause is Oxymandian,” Joanna Newsom sings at the beginning of her new song. We’re talking the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, then? — maybe this is some tale of a crumbling empire. We’re catapulted into a familiar Newsom scenario. There are the quaint, declarative piano riffs that propelled the best songs on 2010’s behemoth, ‘70s-flavored triple-album Have One on Me, and obscure, mythological lyricism reminiscent of her densely orchestrated song cycle Ys.
The song suggests that a vague narrative is being laid out. As much as anything else, this feeling comes from the picturesque, ever-shifting musical structure. A vague sense of despair and tragedy shines through the sunny chords and lilting melody. “Do you love me? Will you remember?” she sings in the galloping, vaguely Celtic refrain, against cascading arpeggios. “Will you tell the one I love to remember and hold me?” The lines conjure the image of a lover bidding farewell and heading out to sea, but in P.T. Anderson’s video, Joanna is skipping through lower Manhattan and Washington Square park. She’s exploring the “map of Sapokanikan,” a term which refers to Greenwich Village, back when it was countryside. She’s still on Earth with us in the present day — a long way from the woodland ambience of her early work — but looking back at old legends with one eye.
Get ready — Joanna’s new album, Divers, is due out in late October and will feature arranging work from crossover classical whizkid Nico Muhly and Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors.