In her NPR interview earlier this year, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark explained how a hard year doesn’t change the fact that life indecently spills from it. On the contrary, she says, “Life can be challenging and sad … but music is the easy part…That’s the thing that I love doing more than anything else, so I approached it that way. I didn’t fuss over things too much; I just let this thing be what it wanted to be, and that was a release for me.”
In letting this thing be, this thing naturally became a kind of conduit for something elegant and spectral, something more than the confines of her personal life, something which made Clark 2011’s musical prophetess. By freeing up the strife to speak through “the easy part,” Clark in Strange Mercy (4AD) creates an utterly personal message that channels to the universal listener very personally. Her process epitomizes “breaking the fourth wall” with a guitar—the music, an expression of her personal untying of burdens, becomes the forceful energy by which her listeners are able to uniquely untie their own. This take on her own music as communion—music as Spirit, dare I say!—invites the message to be heard precisely how it is heard for the listener, not for the performer: “I think in some ways, it can do a listener a disservice to explain a song…I think I’d rather leave a little room for people to put themselves in it.”
From start to finish, Strange Mercy is an abreactive hot pot. It’s all about expectations—promised and failed—and the illusions of fidelity to them. Exemplar A: “Cruel” are the expectations laid on you to want what you don’t want, as well as the response you’re given when you can’t live up to them when you try to appease them anyway—the video gives a very household-harpooned transcription of the idea.
Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?
For you could want that, too
They could take or leave you
So they took you, and they left you
How could they be casually cruel?
It’s not just “cruel,” it’s casually cruel. Cruelty that is socialized, repetitive, unthinking means that it is just as much a part of our elemental configuration as the families from which it comes. There’s a focus on conjugal strife, it seems—“Chloe in the Afternoon” is based on the same-named morality tale in a Rohmer short film about marital infidelity—and the music itself seems to evoke that strife. Clark’s vocal relationship with her guitar creates eerie, often discordant harmonies. Even when expressing anguish or repression, Clark’s voice is neat-chic, delicate, precise. Her guitar bellows-growls-scratches-shrieks in union, but also as competitor or foe or foil. “Surgeon” takes this discord to its height.
Dressing, undressing for the wall
If mother calls she knows well we don’t get along.
Best, finest surgeon, come cut me open.
Best, finest surgeon, come cut me open.
Clark has explained that the surgeon line came from one of Marilyn Monroe’s diaries. What she found was a petition for intervention, a plea for help from the cruel despair of solitude, one’s “undressing for the wall” inwardness. It’s an invocation of one’s desire for diagnosis—for some reaching into the conflicted self and naming the problem. It’s profound: the same line repeats for what seems ages, as if the “summer on the back” malaise is peaking. It’s as if the recognition for the need for diagnosis is, in itself, reaching a healing and painful climax all its own.
Salvation comes, though, through a mediator. The title track, “Strange Mercy,” is a despairing communicant of the good news “they no longer believe,” all for the sake of a beloved “lost boys” finding a safe place. They are tired, they’ve been tired for a long time, hounded by the law and gone exile—she sings of a rogue that goes exile with them, “to where the shivers won’t find you.” It’s a strange mercy, a communion of the lost helping the lost, a wild lover and dejected beloved, dejected together for the sake of, well, mercy.
If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up,
No, I, I don’t know what.
If I ever find that dirty policeman who roughed you up,
I’ll be with you lost boys, sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you.
What an amazing expression of love seeking after the lost, a defender against those held captive by the law, those “dirty policemen.” What a comforting message for the exile in everyone—exiled on failed expectations and inherent cruelty.
And then there’s the music—I mean, pages could be written on the sonic presentation for each of St. Vincent’s tracks in this record. The emotional landscape is conveyed as much symphonically as lyrically—all the layers are there—from edgy guitar licks to the epileptic tub-thump drums in “Dilettante” to the Moogy (but never too Moogy) and echo-chambered “Hysterical Strength”—it’s a balance by way of swinging extremes rather than stasis, the very same way we, as emotional pendulums, swing. And it’s all so perfectly calibrated, never really messy. If it’s messy and loud, it’s only so in the same way that Clark stands on stage, a cleanly and elegantly presented and punctuated chamber of “livin’ in fear, in the year of the tiger”. If only our fear and cruelty could always be so calibrated, and sound so good. Maybe, though, that’s the truth of it—the strange mercy she’s communicating—that despite the cruelty, music breathes forth still, even into 2012.