St. Vincent // St. Vincent
Strange Mercy is an incredible album. Let’s just get that out of the way. It wasn’t something I was particularly receptive to back in 2011. I was fairly unimpressed with what I thought to be a pop album that really tried to make a point of being dark and strange. But for whatever reason, it was something that I kept listening to, and still listen to on a regular basis. It’s grown to be an well-crafted album full of finesse and subtleties both instrumental and emotional, and it manages to expertly weave haunting melodies with chaotic dissonance. It’s stood up for me as something worth talking about for years to come and put Annie Clark on my radar as a songwriter with a very interesting career ahead of her (and behind, I suppose, since it’s not as if she hasn’t already released a significant body of work before Strange Mercy).
Some time between Strange Mercy and St. Vincent's latest self-titled album, two things happened that telegraphed the potential direction St. Vincent would take. The first was the release of Krokodil/Grot, a single sold exclusively on Record Store day in April of 2012. It was an incredible one-two punch illustrating two totally different philosophies with the same goal: rawness. Krokodil was a hyperactive, noisy, and concise track in the spirit of noise rock bands like Big Black or hardcore punk bands like Bad Brains or Black Flag (the song’s guitar riff actually reminds me of Black Flag's seminal opener to their album Damaged, Rise Above). Its fraternal twin, Grot, on the other hand was a methodical, lumbering behemoth, crawling along to sludgy riffs as Annie Clark droned on about the corrupting influence of power. Things were looking promising for the next St. Vincent album.
Then came St. Vincent's collaboration with David Byrne. A grouping that seemed brilliant on paper. Alas, in my opinion, Love This Giant was a mess, and not as great as it could have been considering the pedigree of its collaborators. Normally, I would say that the less said about that album, the better but unfortunately it seems as though David Byrne's influence left a lasting impression on Annie Clark (but who would blame her?).
Which leads us to this: St. Vincent, an album that I had very high hopes for, in spite of Love This Giant, mostly because all of Annie Clark's previous works were so great. I really had hoped that it would follow more in the vein of Krokodil/Grot, but while certain elements of those songs (Krokodil, to be specific) are present, they feel greatly overshadowed by the new wave-y bizarro-pop presence of David Byrne. I would say that the end result of the album feels like a watered down compromise, but the influence is far too one-sided to warrant that.
St. Vincent is a very consistent album, but to a fault. It’s well-established in its own identity and it certainly is exactly what it intends to be from the start. Unfortunately, it feels so rooted in trying to communicate a very specific aesthetic that the tone of the album almost the entire way through is very metered. There is nothing about St. Vincent that feels particularly surprising. It sacrifices the subtleties and turns present in Strange Mercy in return for a more concrete, but ultimately less interesting listen.
St. Vincent is not particularly varied and each song seems to fall into one of two camps: upbeat, fuzzy, guitar-driven pop songs or slower, more melodic fare. While that’s not necessarily bad, it does make it feel as though some of the songs just start to meld together after a while. Interestingly enough, I think the emphasis on catchy guitar riffs actually hurts the album. Even though a couple of my favorite songs fall into that category (Birth In Reverse and Regret in particular), in most of my favorite St. Vincent songs the guitar serves as a complement to the music around it, brief flashes of finesse in the midst of other layers of instrumentation. Annie Clark's chops with the guitar are still present in St. Vincent with some very slick riffs and soloing but it feels much less nuanced and lends itself to all having a very similar fuzziness that, while it definitely works for many other bands, makes many of the individual tracks feel as though they lack their own distinct identities. Also, it doesn’t always work, as is the case with Huey Newton which crescendos into a guitar riff that sounds a little too close to something you might find in a Black Keys or White Stripes song. I like my fair share of songs from either band, but it feels jarring and out of place in this context.
I don’t dislike St. Vincent, which might be hard to believe because I’ve done nothing but criticize it. I think it’s good, but just good. It’s just disappointing to me. I expected much more from it and it was one of my most anticipated releases since Strange Mercy. I had high hopes, and I think if this album were released by anyone else, I would certainly sing its praises, but it wasn’t, so I didn’t.
And maybe it’s unfair. Maybe it’s unfair for me to expect St. Vincent to triumph in the shadow of Strange Mercy. Maybe it’s unfair for me to turn it over constantly and compare it to Strange Mercy at every turn instead of trying to evaluate it on its own merits. But unfortunately, music does not exist in isolated bubbles, and I think any attempt to decontextualize music in order to better judge it “objectively” is an exercise in futility. Music is the furthest anything can possibly be from objective. How we experience music can only be determined by our own past experiences and our own perspective. I do not believe that an artist is only as good as their last album. Far from it, in fact, I’ve thrown my hat into the ring for St. Vincent for the foreseeable future.
The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to truly say you love something if it doesn’t make you feel anything. Strange Mercy, to me, represented this chaotic amalgam of emotions and feelings from dizzying joy to melancholy to righteous anger and indignation. It’s an album that makes me feel things, for better or for worse. I have listened to St. Vincent about seven times at this point, and I just don’t find myself that emotionally invested in most of it. Sure, there are sounds and rhythms and melodies and lyrics that I enjoy on some level, but at the end of the day as a complete package I just don’t feel particularly moved by it. And that’s a shame.
Favorite Track(s): Birth In Reverse, Prince Johnny, Regret, Psychopath
Least Favorite Track(s): Huey Newton, Bring Me Your Loves