Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Album Review: Strange Mercy - St. Vincent

My first introduction to the new St. Vincent album (I hadn't yet memorized the name) came during this year's Pitchfork Music Festival in the form of a video that was repeated ad nauseum between sets on the festival's jumbotron. The ad featured a series of attractive women looking into the camera and earnestly spouting rote breakup cliches created to spare the male ego. After a series of these, Annie Clark finally appears and looks directly into the camera and without hesitance or dissembling says:
It was an incredibly effective spot. As every review of her by a male writer has attested, Clark is very attractive woman and her lure is drawn from more than just her looks. Annie Clark has a cold, clear-eyed strength that radiates out of her person and music which adds to her magnetic attractiveness just as much as her looks. Both her playing and her lyrics prove that she's the kind of girl who can kick your ass and make him like it. 

As the title suggests, Strange Mercy is a drawn-out study of that pain/pleasure dichotomy and the exquisite tension that it produces. Both lyrically and musically, this album sees Clark dropping many of her coquettish, Disney-aping mannerisms and embracing the macabre sensuality that has always lurked just below the surface on her work. While Marry Me showed at lot of the folk/pop seams from her work in the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' band and Actor was all spastic guitar covered with orchestral technicolor, Strange Mercy embraces Clark's arty pop and pairs it with propulsive songs, colored by her unique and aggressive yet also atmospheric guitar style. St. Vincent has never sounded better.

Although Clark's songs are always framed solidly in the personal, the theme of the album, of exposing painful truths that had long been hidden by sunny facades is a perfect soundtrack for America in recession. We may have been racking up debt for over a decade, seen China coming for years and been playing with the low-regulation boom and bust cycle ever since Reagan, but only in the past few years has America been truly forced to confront its own failings. It's perhaps fitting that the first song leaked from this album, "Surgeon" was often my sonic respite from debt-ceiling news this summer. Clark's song about being unable to get along with another person and longing for surgical help to fix her problems might as well have been talking about the rapidly fraying political situation around her.

This theme does not go unacknowledged either. "I've seen America / with no clothes on" Clark tells us in "Cheerleader" while at the same time refusing to sit on the metaphorical sidelines and mouth empty platitudes of support. It turns out our country may just be the national equivalent of the loser being dumped in those Pitchfork ads. "Year Of The Tiger" sees Clark channeling a financial pirate whose malfeasance is starting to catch up with them. Set, presumably, in 2010 (if my Chinese astrology is up to snuff), the narrator goes from laughing at the "rubes" whose she's made money off of to being forced to face the music and asking the po' faced question, "America, can I owe you one?" And in "Champagne Year" she confesses that she "make[s] a living telling people what they want to hear," sound familiar?

Elsewhere the album does skew more personal. "Chloe In The Afternoon" documents a possibly-infedilitous midday tryst with S&M worthy of "Venus In Furs" that takes it miles away from the sophisticated but subdued extramarital excursions of the French film of the same name. In "Northern Lights" aurora borealis is mistaken for the apocalypse, this time taking something beautiful and only seeing darkness. On the second track, Annie Clark answers the question of weather she has another "Actor Out Of Work" in her with "Cruel," whose off-kilter guitar hook will be running through your head for days. The video, meanwhile, shows Clark as a suburban mother being slowly diminished and killed by her Cleaversesque family.
St. Vincent's recent on-stage recreation of Big Black is instructive when viewing this album. Clark recently told Pitchfork, "Physically, I’m a very demure-looking person. But I certainly have as much aggression or anger as the next person, and that’s got to come out somehow" and you can hear her sublimated Big Black-style rage throughout Strange Mercy.  Clark's eagerness to peel back the curtain applies just as much to the music as it does to the writing, with fewer lush asides and more fuzzy, skronky and at times almost unrecognizable guitar dotting the album. This is accentuated by stop-start jerky rhythms and bursts of distorted sax that will be familiar to fans of Actor as well as electronic effects that are a new and effective addition to the band's palate. The effect an album that engages both the physical and cerebral pleasure centers and leaves you both thinking and humming. 

Look to hear about this album a lot bot now at come end-of-the-year list time, St. Vincent is one of the most interesting, engaging and challenging acts going today, both live and in the studio and on Strange Mercy they have hit their stride. 


Cheerleader - St. Vincent
Northern Lights - St. Vincent
Champagne Year - St. Vincent

St. Vincent will be on tour this fall and it's sure to be revelation to see these songs translated to a live setting. Chicagoans can catch her at Metro on Wednesday October 5.

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