Mark Newman’s 2019 release “Scapegoat” is a witty, rebellious track driven by an impressive stylistic commitment to Southern rock and storytelling. It both contributes to the elaborate history of its genre while simultaneously providing a subversive narrative about the nature of law and justice: “I’m an innocent man living outside the law.” Warm, vintage, and compelling, Newman’s track is enjoyable at a surface level and an intellectual one. It’s a song you can dance to and debate over.
“Scapegoat” opens with a single guitar riff and a sparse clinking rhythm. Its simplistic opening draws the listener in and builds the spine of the song as it progresses. There is a playful control to these opening instruments – the listener gets the sense that the player has bone-deep expertise and has been making music for decades. Then, as the supporting instruments come howling to the forefront, we see this expertise translated into a broader setting – all before we hear the first lyrics.
Walking home through the alley when I witnessed a hit/He was fighting for his life when his throat got slit/I screamed hey stop! But not in time.
The song wastes no time in establishing its narrative stakes – within the first line, our narrator witnesses a murder. Its lyrics follow a clear-cut melody, each word falling into its expected note. Yet within these restrictions, the vocals take delightful liberties depending on the lyrical content. With the line, “I screamed hey stop!” Newman offers a scratching urgency that both works within the melody and strains against its restrictions.
The police showed up to take care of business/ Everyone looking for a weapon, looking for a witness
From my understanding, “Scapegoat” tells a chilling story of a character who witnesses a murder and is subsequently scapegoated when the police are unable to locate the killer. This dark narrative is undercut by the upbeat melody that accompanies it, and yet the listener can feel the vocals struggling against its restrictions – to such an extent that I wonder whether the song reproduces its narrative struggle in its own articulation. The song’s narrator is fighting against a restrictive justice system – are the vocals fighting against its upbeat melody? How far does the rabbit hole go?
This interpretation lends itself nicely to the relationship between the vocals and the instrumental background. The instruments perform a nearly reactive role once the lyrics begin: clashing drums punctuate certain phrases, guitars bend and grumble in response to certain ideas, and in the chorus all the instruments break loose in violent support as the narrator pushes “the pedal to the floor.” This instrumental character reaches its peak about two thirds of the way through the song, at which point an electric keyboard takes the reins.
Well, they let me go and said don’t leave town/I’ll be damned if I’m gonna hang around/Spend the next few years in Mexico
“Scapegoat” takes the listener through a journey of anger, escape, pride, and laughter. By the end of the song, the narrator seems to have lost all faith in his country’s justice system, and abandons what he knows to pursue a life free of those restrictive influences. The song wraps itself up soon after, the instrumentals accelerating to crazed levels, then sighing into silence.
Listening to this song, I could help but be reminded of when I was sixteen and lying in the park with friends, listening to “Somebody Was Watching” by Pops Staples. The tune is both nostalgic and relevant, a clattering and soulful piece that manages to address a serious topic without taking itself too seriously. It pushes back against itself, leans into conflict, and raises genuine questions while still flexing a fun, upbeat melody.