The Strange Mercy of St. Vincent

Jonah Bromwich is not boring to listen to. Critical darlings are only occasionally boring to listen to; however they are frequently boring to review. I’ll say it again: boring to review. St....
By    September 19, 2011

Jonah Bromwich is not boring to listen to.

Critical darlings are only occasionally boring to listen to; however they are frequently boring to review. I’ll say it again: boring to review. St. Vincent’s new album Strange Mercy is never boring to listen to. In fact, it’s one of the most exciting albums that’s come out this year. But you already knew that. In fact, you already know a whole host of information about Strange Mercy, due to Spin’s cover story, due to Pitchfork’s best new music assignation, due to hundreds of other reviews and interviews that have placed Annie Clark at the forefront of a musical world that only occasionally focuses so intently on a single act.

So let me try to tell you, you scrupulous music review checkers, you informed, passionate, Passion readers some things that you maybe don’t know. Let me try to employ some adjectives that you haven’t already read, to conjure up some descriptions that you haven’t already tired of. Because if you haven’t just gone ahead and listened to this album yet, you really should. And here’s why.

Because it’s sexy. A lot of people have focused on the contrast between Annie Clark’s demure appearance and soft sweet voice and the brutality and honesty of her lyrics. But I think it has to be mentioned that this unpredictable combination of guitar riffs and cooing, of drum-slapping madness and aesthetic bliss is just about the sexiest thing laid down on record this year (unless you prefer the Coathangers brand of shrieking, which is totally respectable.)

Take opener “Chloe in the Afternoon” which starts with Clark’s unique brand of girlish declaration, interspersed with a fierce guitar riff. The combination is, well, noticeable. Sultry and stlish without being overtly aggressive. Oh there’s also this shudder that runs through the coda; it’s wild stuff. Or, alternatively, take the title track, which unfortunately sounds like it’s addressed to you from your mom if your mom was a surprisingly mature and full-voiced lady who just wanted to spend a little more quality time with you. And this is a good thing. I swear. She’s not actually your mom.

Because it’s astonishingly well-produced. Listen to the steady, arrhythmic drums on “Dilettante”, which are superbly well incorporated into the hum of a pitch perfect, non-cheesy backing choir. Or listen to the part when the thrumping bass and jagged synths come together to form a kind of phantasmagoric funk. Seriously. If you’re not into that, go with the hazy murmur of fan-favorite “Surgeon” where Clark’s voice is eventually outdone by the clarity of the guitar loop on the third chorus. Oh and both of these songs are sexy too.

Because it’s fun to listen to without being easy to listen to. Sure the album is relatively accessible. And there’s nothing wrong with albums that are accessible due to their catchiness. Sometimes you can’t help but to want to hear a song again because a part of it got in your head. But’s that not the case with Strange Mercy. “Cruel” has about seven distinct sections. That’s far too many to get any one part hooked in your head until you want to listen to it ad infinitum. And yet, the song is a groover, an irresistible slice of fun, the kind which you don’t often see as on an album as complex as this one is.

“Northern Lights” too is a song which I thought everybody would enjoy until I considered that my parents (who are my dual standards for easy listening; Kenny G fans both of them) don’t enjoy low-fi guitar noise. Or breakdowns capped by magnificent bass. The song’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But it’s fun for the kind of people who like a bit of rough noise along with their pretty flowers.

Look, in all honesty, Strange Mercy wasn’t boring to review. It was difficult to review. This album is so ear-spittingly, keyboard-bangingly good, that critics far more experienced and intelligent and verbose and descriptive got to it first. But it is a hard-rocking, eccentric banger, the kind of album that’s guaranteed top ten on any influential music blog’s list. And as much as we at Passion like to make our own lane, we have to agree with everyone else. This album is really good.

MP3: St. Vincent – “Surgeon”

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