St. Vincent “Strange Mercy”

 
 

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St. Vincent

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“Strange Mercy”

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[4AD; 2011]

 
 

Rating: 9

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so much depends
upon
 
a red wheel
barrow
 
glazed with rain
water
 
beside the white
chickens
 
by William Carlos William 

I remember first seeing this poem in high school and judging it as the worst piece of poetry ever written.  It had no rhythm, no rhyme, and from what my adolescent mind could gather, no meaning.  It didn’t help that my inept high school teacher didn’t have the sense to guide us toward a basic level of comprehension and appreciation.  I ran into the poem once again in college, and the professor didn’t lend much help with understanding the poem either. Instead, he mocked the class, as he often did, saying over and over again, “Don’t you get why so much depends upon the wheel barrow?” He never did tell us the severe importance of that damn barrow.

A few weeks ago, I found myself facing the ghastly poem for the third time while perusing a book of poetry.  Upon seeing it, I stopped and revisited William Carlos Williams words just for the sheer joy of stirring up bad memories.  But on this third reading of the imagist poem, something happened. In a flash of clarity, it all made sense. I understood why so much depended on that wheelbarrow (a device that has been used by mankind as far back as Ancient Greece) and I realized that so much of the poem’s meaning depends upon the little details nestled within each word and line.  The shape of the poem, the word sounds, the fragments of images, the compound words broken apart, the contrast of the red and white colors, all captured in that brief instant after rainfall – this one poem, illuminating the beauty of the moment.

As my understanding of this masterpiece emerged, I wished I could go back and explain it to my high school English teacher who only taught it because it was in the textbook. I wanted to revisit that college professor and reverse roles for a change.  I realized that there is nothing more rewarding than when you finally break through and find the beauty in something that can both be found complex and simple at the same time.

I had this same feeling of illumination while listening to St. Vincent’s “Strange Mercy.” In the past, I never had much interest for Anne Erin Clark’s music project. The bits and pieces I’d heard seemed to be the same old ho-hum, run-of-the-mill songstress affair we’ve heard before.  I didn’t quite get why the album “Actor” was so critically acclaimed.

This past year my ill-will toward the band all changed when I first saw their performance at the This Concert Could Be Your Life show, a 10-year celebration of Michael Azerad’s indie rock bible Our Concert Could Be Your Life.  St. Vincent chose to play Big Black’s “Kerosene” and the result was extraordinary.  Clark stepped onto the stage and ripped through a searing, caustic rendition of the classic song, transforming before my eyes from another Juliana Hatfield into an indie rock goddess worthy of sitting on the throne next to Steve Albini.  This one performance changed everything, or at least I thought.

I of course responded to the performance by purchasing the lauded album “Actor,” expecting to find that it had that same vicious assault hidden amidst the balladry.  Nope. It was exactly as I remembered.  It wasn’t the girl I saw on the stage; it just couldn’t be. So reserved, so tame, so restrained. Where had that fiery beast gone?  I wondered: did Steve Albini need to work his producer magic in order to release the fury on the next album?

I purchased “Strange Mercy,” hoping in my heart of hearts that Steve Albini answered my prayers and produced it (looking back, I’m glad he didn’t).  Again, I was at first unimpressed with the album. It seemed to be a jumbled mess of strange synths and guitar squalls that never meshed with the tormented lyrics of Clark.  Much like that red wheelbarrow, I just didn’t get the hype, and I didn’t know how this could be the same band that performed “Kerosene” only months earlier.

Then, a few days later, like Dorothy walking from black and white into Oz, I had my moment of clarity. Incredible.  Simply incredible. The keyboards weren’t the mess I’d first assessed them as, rather a funky, Stevie Wonder era burst of adrenaline, taking songs of loneliness, uncertainty, and despair and making that agony somehow sexy.  The guitars were not simply random bleeps, rather perfectly placed accents on the vivid, haunting stories found in Clark’s lyrics. Oh, and to simply say that the lyrics are all doom and gloom would be foolish. Her narratives take strange twists that can be either ironic or funny (or both) all the while furthering a message that digs deep into your soul/mind/heart and makes you question everything.

“Surgeon,” a cry for help or simply a song about sex? Or both?!:

Many of the songs feature a lush orchestration that rubs up roughly against the piercing guitars and keyboards, yet this dichotomy of sound adds an eerie element, conjuring up the melodies of the innocent 1950s amidst the chaos of video game like synth riffs and barking guitars.

The video for “Cruel” is probably my favorite of 2011:

Now I have a new problem: I can’t quit listening to “Strange Mercy”. Nothing else I contains the same adventurous spirit, the same open-hearted candor, the same experience of discovery within each listen.  It’s like trying to follow-up a reading of “The Red Wheelbarrow” with  “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” And where does the name St. Vincent come from? Coincidentally, the medical center where poet Dylan Thomas died.  She’s been quoted as calling it “the place where poetry comes to die.” If so, she’s creating Poetry Zombies as we speak, one thought provoking song at a time.

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2 Comments

Filed under Album Review, Best New Albums

2 responses to “St. Vincent “Strange Mercy”

  1. PT

    Nice review! Love this album.

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