1. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
“He thought there was going to be so much—more than he had ever dreamed possible… instead there was absolutely nothing.” It’s a line that sounds stripped from the best of Annie Clark’s songs; except that it isn’t. It belongs to Marilyn Monroe, in one of her diaries that dates back to April 1955. But how tragic, and how intimate, is that? Here’s Monroe, one of the most widely sought after figures in the history of pop culture, digressing on the fear of disappointment, especially to a loved one. It’s a recurring element in much of her personal writings. It’s also one of the driving motivations for Clark’s best work to date, Strange Mercy.
“Oh America, can I owe you one,” Clark laments by album’s end on “Year of the Tiger”. It’s one of the most poignant and culturally relevant tracks of the year–a bombastic herald to the States’ end times, when capitalistic whores die at the hands of coffee makers. What bitter, insightful precision. Look to your town squares, your universities, your banks, and your financial districts. It’s a mercurial year for Americans. The track’s sort of wavy, lazy distortion exemplifies that. We’re wary of the errors, we’re indignant of our culture, and we’re starting to wake up.
But there’s a deeper sense of self-awareness that Clark exhibits here. It goes back to Monroe. She hints that, despite the culture’s pre-conceived notion that all is equal, it’s anything but that. People scoff at the misogynistic, heavily racial days of Mad Men every Sunday (y’know, when it returns), but it’s not too far off today. It’s still, in many ways, a man’s world, and Clark underscores this error. On “Surgeon”, she cries out how she “spent another summer on [her] back” and of things that let her “get along, get along,” and later on the title track, she insists she’ll remain by her “lost boys.” This idea couldn’t be any more boldly stated than on “Cheerleader”, where she calls members in her family “honest thieves,” chalking it up to an America “with no clothes on.” So, why stay? As she suggests later into the album on “Champagne Year”, “it’s not the perfect plan, but it’s the one we got.”
It’s dense, morose stuff, though you wouldn’t really notice. Clark has spent far too much time etching out adventurous rhythms, crossbreeding genres in each track; you’d be remiss to even acknowledge some of its lyrical madness. It’s a delightful listen with a foreboding underbelly, if you will. Take the transition from funky treading to its synth-laden baths at the end of “Dilettante”, for instance. That’s the sort of stuff a guru carves out. But, Clark proves worthy of that title earlier on (if she hadn’t via 2009’s Actor) with “Cruel”, this year’s most attractive pop song with the most invaluable question of ’em all: “How could they be casually cruel?” Is she being rhetorical, or does she desire an answer? Hopefully the former, because quite pathetically nobody has the answer. Christ, what does that say about us? -Michael Roffman