Words by Brian Salvatore
Some records remind me of a great lecture in college – there is a topic/theme, and that topic/theme is covered for an hour or so from one basic sound perspective. Think the first four Ramones albums.
Other records remind me of a semester long course – again, there is a focus, but that focus is attacked from all sides, with the breath being wider – there are ballads and rockers, and mid-tempo shuffles. Think Born to Run.
Still others remind me of a year of course study – more ideas are thrown against the wall than you could possibly expect from one record, and unpacking them takes a lot of time. Think The White Album or 69 Love Songs – heavy songs, instrumentals, experimental flourishes, standards, etc.
And then there is Strange Mercy – this record is the equivalent of your entire education, from Pre-K through your Doctorate. Each song has a year (or more) worth of ideas, experiments and melody.
This record has more influences, sounds, overdubs and moods than most artists put out in their entire career. Annie “St. Vincent” Clark, a Manhattan based guitarist/composer/singer, combines so many sounds in each song that her records can be exhausting and difficult to absorb. As I get more and more into the record, I go through vastly different experiences at each level.
My first listen to Strange Mercy had me shaking my head at the sheer number of ideas present. Something like “Cheerleader” sounds a lot like Nine Inch Nails, the Beatles and a Top 40 song, without sounding dependent or derivative to any one sound.
After the third listen, the album really started to take shape for me. The melodies began to pop off the speakers and separate from the sedimentary build up of sounds underneath. I also began to hear the influence of Timbaland in the production which, surprisingly, might be the most clear influence on the album. I began to also hear the influence of Disney songs on some of the grander melodies and lush string arrangements. I began to hear Frank Zappa’s guitar theatrics popping up here and there. Just when i was starting to “get” the record, I started to hear even more detail. Even a straightforward track like “Northern Lights” has a deep synth bubbling up from the underground and a pure noise guitar solo.
The lyrics went unnoticed on the early listens as well, because as beautiful as Clark’s voice is, it is rarely the most interesting sound at any particular time. But as i listened more, the wit and honesty of the lyrics started to stand out more and more each time. They also have the benefit of being attached to the aforementioned gorgeous melodies that soar over the instrumental tracks. One important detail is how integrated the vocals feel to the rest of the music – it could easily feel disjointed or pasted upon with that many sonics underneath them.
Songs like “Strange Mercy” and “Cheerleader” reveal deep ideas and painful memories, while “Champagne Year” talks about expectation versus reality in a painfully real way. “Champagne Year” has the most out front vocals of any track on the album, and i wonder if that was intentional; “I make a living telling people what they want to hear, but I can tell you, it’s going to be a Champagne year.” What a beautiful and complex idea – it would be bogged down and unnoticed if not placed out front.
By the fifth listen, I’m so immersed in the sound that other records begin to sound empty to me. Why doesn’t every album have so many layers? Why don’t I always jot down lyrics in my notebook when I’m on the bus? Why aren’t drum machines used this cleverly by everyone? I begin to slip into Strange Mercy withdrawal when it isn’t on my stereo. I get backing vocal melodies stuck in my head – when has that ever happened before? I begin to notice bass lines and acoustic guitars – my two favorite recorded sounds that have somehow escaped my ears until now. What is happening to me?
By the tenth listen, I begin to become myself again. This record isn’t perfect; the latter listens reveal that some tracks are simply overstuffed and a few melodies slightly undercooked. But these are minor gripes from someone trying to come to terms with their complicated relationship to a great album. I’m sure I’ll relapse sooner or later. Once you get a taste…
© September 12th, 2011
TheWaster.com | New York City