The past decade has seen the emergence and rise of a hipster culture that glorifies irony. Sweaters sporting a smiling Mickey Mouse are worn as an ironic reference to youth, stringy mustaches are grown to subvert good taste, cult movies are loved for their ridiculousness, and PBR is downed because of its utter rejection by the rest of society. The 80s thus hold a special fondness in the hipster’s heart, probably because of their extravagance and general awfulness. In her new album Strange Mercy,St. Vincent’s Annie Clark has taken a love of irony and run with it, perhaps too far.
Strange Mercy is an overwhelming album. Despite paring her instrumentation down to guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards from her previous album’s horns and strings, these songs are often more complex. Guitar riffs play over a driving drum beat, while keyboards and bass add harmony, counterpoint, and extra noise. Effects on guitar, keyboard, and voice are so prevalent here they may as well be considered their own instrument. Countless allusions stagger with the search for their source. Take for instance the first single, “Surgeon.”Clark croons in the verses over an airy background, sounding like her previous songs. The guitar riff in the chorus hearkens to prog-rock band Yes while bowed guitar in the bridge brings to mind electric violin players. A squealing keyboard in the coda references synth-pop. The energetic bass line at the end hails from Parliament/Funkadelic. Somehow, though, this works. The material is catchy enough to bug you for days, and the cheesy effects hold interest. The deluge may be overpowering, but lord is it fun.
The irony comes into play through the allusions, which mainly refer to the 80s through over-produced synths and extravagant effects. What’s hard to discern here is whether Clark does this out of respect, disdain, or a little of both. Many of the synth lines are so gaudy that Clark has to be making fun of them. But at the same time, they work in her songs. A few tracks would probably even be boring without those ludicrous sounds. This dichotomy between respect and irony allows the listener to both laugh at the references while enjoying them without losing any of their precious coolness. And in spite of the unrestrained retrospective gazing, Clark manages to make these sounds her own. After a while one begins to wonder whether that keyboard has been heard before, or if it just sounds like it’s from the past. This is how ironic art should be.
Though my first instinct listening to this album was to run and hide as synth pop and glam metal returned, it has grown on me. It still isn’t an album that can be listened to as a whole, but a few songs at a time it’s inventive and fun. Hipsters, rejoice. The 80s have finally been reconciled with the present.
In the 6 months or so since I’ve written this, I have to say it’s become one of my favorite albums. And St. Vincent live is phenomenal. Interestingly enough, a strong punk element comes out live, and the bludgeoning noise is a powerful experience. So much energy, and such a great, balanced sound.