By David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Album: St. Vincent “Strange Mercy” (2011)
Release date: Sept 13
The strength of Annie Clark’s music, from 2003’s “Ratsliveonnoevilstar” to her newest release as St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy” (2011), rests largely on one thing: Her ability to combine strange and harsh elements with beautiful ones. On “Marry Me” (2007) and “Actor” (2009), she blended Disney-like flutes, melodic and sensually conscious arrangements, with abrasive guitar and ambiguity. What makes St. Vincent’s music so intriguing is that much of it is always fighting itself. The dazzlingly pretty parts are tempered by Clark’s endless creativity for harmonic discord. She scuffed-up the luxurious cinematic landscape of “Marrow” with odd lyricism, cataloging body parts like a medical student, connecting them to human actions, then ending the opening verses with a clever allusion to sex and the Tin-Man in the “Wizard of Oz”: “Muscle connects to the bone / Bone to the ire and the marrow / I wish I had a gentle mind / And a spine made up of iron / Mouth connects to the teeth / Teeth to the loves and the curses / Honey, can you reach the spot that need oiling and fixing?”
This time you’ll find Clark back at the operating table, begging in her new palatial single “Surgeon”, “Best finest surgeon / Come cut me open.” In some degree, the best artists, whatever the medium, are always cutting people open, exploring their inner workings. But that only partially explains her music. It’s also a love for cinema, books and a fascination for combustibility in relationships that fuels the St. Vincent fire. It’s no wonder Clark opens the record with a song named after one of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”, “Chloe In The Afternoon”, because that film combines two of those elements. The movie is an exquisitely-filmed psychological story about extra-marital temptation and true love. St. Vincent’s “Chloe In The Afternoon” begins with candied-synthesized organ and a cinematic flourish that sparkles like sequence. It runs headlong into buzzsaw guitar, hard-thumping drums, and a strange fluttering vocal distortion. “Cruel” mixes the beauty and the beast in St. Vincent at an almost absurd tilt. Fantastic and outlandish melodies swirl into a pop-pretty, laptop symphonic delight. Lush L’s unfurl from Clark’s mouth, enunciating words like, “casually”, “cruel”, “alleys”, “leave”, “left”, with a deliciousness of tongue. It’s so over-the-top with its adorning ambrosia of strings and sumptuously upbeat keyboard, that it bubbles-over like wonderful parody, becoming uncontrollably beautiful in the process. It’s the equivalent of watching the gorgeous eye-candy of Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic marvel “Written On the Wind” or the wild Technicolor of “Magnificent Obsession”. “Cruel” tosses the silk-boa back and lets go. It shreds in red, outrageous palettes of bright fuchsia, blood orange, sunny yellows, deep browns, and glinting greens.
The slow-building “Cheerleader” combines familiar Clark lyricism about a string of bad relationships and the frustration of being placed in an unwanted role: “I’ve had good times with some bad guys / I told whole lies / With a half-smile / Held your bare bones with my clothes on / I’ve thrown rocks, then hid both my arms / I don’t know what good it serves / Pouring my purse in the dirt / But I don’t wanna be your cheerleader anymore.” It also contains another verse, “I’ve seen America with no clothes on”, that seems to shadow a line written by Allen Ginsberg in “America”. (As far as the lyrics can be heard.) Northern Lights” is St. Vincent’s chance to rock hard, the song swelling into a chaotic, noisy texture of coarse choppy guitar, pounding high-hats, maracas, and electrified high-pitched squeaks. It’s a dynamite arrangement.
There’s a natural desire for listeners to try and read the artist into the work. But St. Vincent is so adept at writing personal songs that feel more universal than confessional. “Neutered Fruit” is one of the most hypnotically elegant tracks on “Strange Mercy”. It begins with light overlapping choral harmonies, like the entering of sacred ground. A bluesy electric guitar unwinds behind a complex shifting of pace and rhythm, a graceful lyrical refrain explodes into a celestial frenzy around a verse assessing a relationship: “Did you ever really stare at me? Did you ever really care for me … like I cared for you?” “Champagne Year” continues this more confessional side of St. Vincent. It’s the most straight-forward track, and a sublime change of pace, dark and brooding — a heartbeat drum and deep guitar melting into industrial noise and open space. “Dilettante” is a playful dalliance, with a “Bennie and the Jets” kinda strut, prancing its way with scuzzy guitar and Clark’s most velvety vocals. “Hysterical Strength” feels a bit like a throwaway. St. Vincent ends the record with “Year of the Tiger”. Despite the song’s clunky Indian-warpath musical refrain, lyrically it sounds like an Andrew Bird song, containing some of Clark’s more pointed verses. They take aim at another type of dilettante, who measures life by knowing the best in Italian shoes and keeping up with the Joneses: “I have to be the best of the bourgeoisie / My whole kingdom for a cup of coffee.”
Sure, Clark has become a critic’s darling, like PJ Harvey and Radiohead before her, but not without reason. St. Vincent’s music feels as if it’s always aching to be. These are songs with multiple pathways of progression, in love with the process of making music. “Strange Mercy” is just one stage in the continuing evolution of St. Vincent. At its most visionary moments, it’s luxuriating, flaunting, extravagant, lush, strange, and passionate. Some may find it indulgent and straining. But it’s never boring. In three official albums, Clark has fused a fine line of music that melds a dichotomy: One half is made of dreamy essence and lithe fantasy, the other a clamor of creative technologically-based explosion and serrated eccentricity. “Strange Mercy” is alien and of the earth. It’s the best of both worlds. Note: Read a Their Bated Breath feature-length piece called “A Savage Beauty”, about the career of Annie Clark going back to her college days. Artwork for this post is based on a photo by photographer Tommy Kearns. As usual, all lyrics are unofficial.
St. Vincent “Surgeon”