Like Ulysses, or Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the music of Joanna Newsom is an enjoyably impenetrable mass of references and allusions: Just when you think you've got a piece figured out, you'll zoom in some more and find a dozen more mysteries that need solving. Not only is Newsom's work intensely personal, it's also densely layered with scientific terms, items from the natural word, and Greek and Celtic mythology, which, as any of her fans could tell you, often results in some very, very long words. (No one's proven this, but I suspect listening to every Joanna Newsom album would be better SAT prep than an actual tutor.) What do they all mean? On the occasion of her new album, Divers, being released last week, we scoured the dictionary and her discography to figure out just that.
Yarn and Glue EP (2003):
embarcadero, "This Side of the Blue"
Usage: "The city that turns, turns protracted and slow / And I find myself toeing the embarcadero."
Definition: We'll start off with an easy one. Embarcadero is the Spanish word for a waterfront; you see it a lot in California, which is where Joanna Newsom is from. Piece of cake!
panopticon, "Yarn and Glue"
Usage: "You know what this is, son / This is the panopticon."
Definition: The panopticon was a concept for a circular prison, devised by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which every inmate could be surveyed by a single guard stationed at the center. After his death, Bentham had the great idea that his body should be on display at University College London forevermore. If you go there, you can still see his bones, dressed in his old clothes, though his head is only brought out once a year. This would be a great subject for a Joanna Newsom song.
antediluvian, "Yarn and Glue"
Usage: "Down the path by which one dabbles / In the arts of antediluvian crafts / With yarn and glue."
Definition: In the biblical sense (not like that, pervs), antediluvian refers to the period before the Great Flood. It's since been watered down to mean anything ancient or old-fashioned, which means that the word itself is sort of antediluvian.
mellifluous, "Yarn and Glue"
Usage: "And we will gather 'round to dine / And pass the time with wicked rhymes / And toast in dandelion wines / To hear their mellifluous chimes."
Definition: A favorite of the wretched souls who compile middle-school vocabulary lists, mellifluous means "sweet and soothing to the ears."
malachite, "What We Have Known"
Usage: "Beneath boots as black as malachite / He drives the nag into the night."
Definition: Malachite is a crystal often used as a gemstone. The weird thing is it's green.
lateen, "Bridges and Balloons"
Usage: "And I can recall our caravel / A little wicker beetle shell / With four fine maste and lateen sails."
Definition: Get ready to learn a lot about boats! A caravel was a Renaissance sailing ship, perfected by the Portuguese during the Age of Exploration. One of its chief features was its lateen sail — a triangular sail, rigged diagonally to the mast — that enabled it to sail much closer to the wind, thus enabling Portuguese adventurers to roam across the world's oceans. In context, Newsom's ship is sailing on the Sea of Imagination — and isn't that the widest ocean of all?
catenaries, "Bridges and Balloons"
Usage: "Catenaries and dirigibles / Brace and bouy the living room."
Definiton: A catenary is the curve formed by a wire or chain suspended between two points. In dirigible construction, the catenary curtain supports the weight of the gondola. Where do you think Joanna Newsom learned so much about blimps?
The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004):
poetaster, "Inflammatory Writ"
Usage: "Advice from the master derailed that disaster / He said, 'Hand that pen over to me, poetaster!'"
Definition: Poetaster is a fancy word for a poet. Specifically, a bad one.
ululate, "Inflammatory Writ"
Usage: "While across the great plains, keen and lovely and awful / Ululate the last great American novels."
Definition: Ululation is a high-pitched wail. In Western literature, the word is generally used around pain and grief, but in African culture, people ululate when they're celebrating. Here are some examples!
cowrie, "Crab, Clam, Cockle, Cowrie"
Usage: "Dedicated dourly, waltzing with the open sea / Clam, crab, cockle, cowrie / Will you just look at me?"
Definition: Like the other three, a cowrie is a shelled sea creature; it's an aquatic snail from the family Cypraeidae. Even if you don't know the name, if you've been to a beach, you're probably familiar with them: They're the little guys that live in these things.
Usage: "And yonder, wild and blue / The wild blue yonder looms / 'Till we are wracked with rheum / By roads, by songs entombed."
Definition: Rheum is the scientific name for what you and I call eye boogers.
Usage: "The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow / Set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport of the pharaoh."
Definition: Boy, does Joanna Newsom live to sing about birds. But this one's a stumper. There's no species in any official birding manuals called the chim-choo-ree; the best guess is that it's an onomatopoeic name the Newsom family uses for a bird that makes this sound. Fun fact: Because of this song, there is now a bar in New Zealand called Chim Choo Ree.
Usage: "Though all that I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December."
Definition: "Emily" is all about astronomy, and the Pleiades are a bright cluster of stars that form part of the constellation Taurus. In the northern hemisphere, they first appear in the night sky in the winter, which has given them mythological significance in many cultures.
Usage: "Peonies nod in the breeze and while they wetly bow / With hydrocephalitic listlessness ants mop up their brow."
Definition: This is my absolute favorite gigantic Joanna Newsom word. It refers to a condition where there is too much liquid in the brain; here, though, it's just a metaphor for overwatered flowers.
Usage: "And my clay-colored motherlessness rangily reclines / Come on home now, all my bones are dolorous with vines."
Definition: Dolorous means full of sadness, as anyone who's enjoyed the antics of Dolorous Edd in the Game of Thrones books knows.
Usage: "Loving him, we move within his borders / Just asterisms in the stars' set order."
Definition: More astronomy! An asterism is another name for a group of stars in the night sky.
sorrel, "Monkey & Bear"
Usage: "What is now known by the sorrel and the roan? / By the chestnut, and the bay, and the gelding grey?"
Definition: If you listen to a lot of Joanna Newsom, you're not just going to learn a shit-ton about flowers and birds, you're also going to learn a lot of different kinds of horses. A sorrel is a red horse, a roan is a horse with a mix of white and colored hairs, chestnut and bay are different shades of brown horses, and a gelding is a male horse that's been castrated.
diluvian, "Monkey & Bear"
Usage: "Bear shed the mantle of her diluvian shoulders / And, with a sigh, she allowed the burden of belly / To drop like an apron full of boulders."
Definition: Remember how we had antediluvian up top? Now we've got its counterpart, which just means "like a flood." To be honest, this section of the song always freaks me out in a sort of cosmic sense, so I have no idea what's supposed to be going on.
yarrow, "Only Skin"
Usage: "Teeth an impalpable bit of leather / While yarrow, heather, and hollyhock / Awkwardly molt along the shore."
Definition: What did I say up there about plants? These are all flowers; none of them are traditionally found along a shore.
inchoate, "Only Skin"
Usage: "We tramped through the poison oak / Heartbroke and inchoate."
Definition: Another one that may give you middle-school flashbacks, inchoate just means half-formed.
Usage: "And all those lonely nights down by the river / I was brought my bread and water by the kith and the kin."
Definition: Kith is an archaic word for "friends"; The Ballad of Kith is an Old English legend that told the tale of ancient heroes Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey.
Usage: "Don't come near me, don't go missing / In the lissome light of evening."
Definition: Thin, but in a sexy way.
Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP (2007):
Usage: "But last night came a different dream / A gray and sloping-shouldered thing / Said, 'What's cinched 'round your waist, Colleen?' / 'Is that my very own baleen?'"
Definition: "Colleen" is a song about an Irish woman realizing she used to be a whale. Here, she has a dream where another whale gets mad at her for wearing a corset, which, as everybody knows,were often made from baleen, keratin reeds that some whales have instead of teeth. Neeewsooooom!!!
Have One on Me (2010):
Blackguard, "Have One on Me"
Usage: "The blackguard sat hard, down / With no head on him now."
Definition: "Have One on Me," of course, is Newsom's musical biography of the 19th-century courtesan Lola Montez. In these lines, Lola's disassociation from reality means she doesn't quite realize that a stranger has been killed, though it's unclear if she's using blackguard as a general synonym for rascal, or if it's a reference to the German mercenaries who operated a few hundred years before this song is set.
etiolated, "No Provenance"
Usage: "And you, with your / Arrangement with Fate / Nodded sadly at her lame assault / On that steady old gate / Her faultlessly etiolated fishbelly face."
Definition: Etiolated means old and withered, which means these lines are literally cursing Fate.
shunt, "In California"
Usage: "My heart became a drunken runt / On the day I sunk in this shunt."
Definition: In the medical field, a shunt is a hole poked to move fluid from one part of the body to the other. More than likely used metaphorically here.
Tulgeywood, "In California"
Usage: "My home, on the old Milk Lake / Where the darkness does fall so fast / It feels like some kind of mistake / Just like they told you it would / Just like the Tulgeywood."
Definition: Tulgey means thick and dark. Tulgeywood is a location in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"; in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, it's a scary forest. Does it really get dark that fast in California?
tallow, "In California"
Usage: "While moving across my land / Brandishing themselves / Like a burning branch / Advance the tallow-colored / Walleyed deer."
Definition: Tallow is a milky fat, taken from cows and sheep. Joanna Newsom does not like these deer.
palanquin, "Go Long"
Usage: "I was brought / In on a palanquin / Made of the many bodies / Of beautiful women / Brought to this place to be examined."
Definition: First of all, that's terrifying. Second of all, a palanquin is a ceremonial litter, typically carried by servants.
neverdoneing, "Soft as Chalk"
Usage: "Still, the mourning doves will summon us their song / Of love's neverdoneing lawlessness."
Definition: This appears to be a word that Joanna Newsom made up? If we had to guess, it probably means "unending."
Usage: "The cause is Ozymandian / The map of Sapokanikan / Is sanded and beveled / The land lone and leveled / By some unrecorded and powerful hand."
Definition: Ozymandias, in the famous words of Percy Shelley, was an Egyptian pharaoh whose magnificent works were lost to time — just like the Lenape town of Sapokanikan, which, over the course of centuries, has since been paved over and turned into the home of New York's hottest clubs.
anelectric, "A Pin-Light Bent"
Usage: "And the city, bright as a garden / When the garden woke to meet me / From that height was a honeycomb / Made of light from those funny homes, intersected / Each enclosed, anelectric and alone."
Definition: "A Pin-Light Bent" is about a flight attendant who accidentally falls out of an airplane to her death, and here she gazes at the amazing view she gets before her death. Apparently, she also thinks of the physics term for "something that cannot become electrified through friction."
Areion, "Time, As a Symptom"
Usage: "Areion, Rharian, go free and graze / Amen."
Definition: In Divers' closing track, Joanna Newsom ponders the idiosyncratic nature of time, giving a shout-out to Areion, an immortal horse from Greek mythology. She tells him to graze the Rharian fields, where his mother, Demeter (they're myths, just go with it), goddess of the harvest, first gave mankind grain.