It should be noted that my dad is unexpectedly, and hilariously, a huge Lady Gaga fan. He finds her really intriguing and loves her kinda edgy pop sound. So one day I decided to play him some of Strange Mercy by St. Vincent. I thought that of all the music I listen to, St. Vincent would be the closest to Lady Gaga. She is poppy and edgy yet very musically inclined (I will get into that later). Halfway through the second song I played, Northern Lights, my dad asks me to turn it off. “I don’t like her, she is just too weird” he explained.
I burst out laughing. How could St. Vincent, a mild mannered girl born in Oklahoma possible be weirder then the “Mother Monster”? Gaga is known for wearing completely bizarre outfits that make her look like an alien, including the infamous meat dress. Compare this to St. Vincent who looks like a petrified porcelain doll on the cover of Marry Me. I just didn’t get it, how could he possibly be so wrong?
The more I thought about it however, the more I began to agree with him. Not is the sense that St. Vincent was too weird for me, my other column is testament to that fact. But I did agree with my dad’s implied opinion that St. Vincent is weirder then Lady Gaga. Sure Lady Gaga might give off the impression of being a space alien, but appearances aren’t everything. When it comes down to it, Lady Gaga is not weird at all.
Gaga is all about the shock factor; the more she stands out the more people take notice. The outfits, the stunts, and the shows only serve to draw more attention. Depending on how jaded you are, you could explain Gaga’s outlandish nature by she is leading a counter-culture movement, she just wants to put on a good show, or that she makes more money if she draws attention to herself. Either way, the motivations behind her actions are really quite normal; people have been rebelling against popular culture since culture became popular, all good artists try to entertain, and money is nice.
There really isn’t anything that weird about her music. I mean for heaven’s sake it constantly tops the charts; weird music simply does not achieve that level of success. Her shows are definitely shocking, but people have been trying to out shock each other since before Madonna donned her infamous cone-bra. Speaking of the other “Queen of Pop”, I know the comparison has been made a million times but Lady Gaga is the modern day Madonna. I am not saying that to belittle Gaga as an artist, but to show that she really is not that weird. St. Vincent is a whole different story.
I am a huge fan of St. Vincent. I have listened to each of her albums countless times, watched all of her music videos, and seen her perform live; I have a pretty good understanding of what she is like as an artist. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) is mousy, thin, and beautiful. She is incredibly soft-spoken and has a hilariously dry wit. She comes off as a nice, quiet girl who keeps mostly to herself.
She also scares the living crap out of me; I am not kidding, she terrifies me. Beneath her pleasant innocent exterior is a dark being that defies description. She just gives off this vibe that makes me uncomfortable; like she is a female praying mantis luring me in with her beauty just so she can bed me and eat me. Her dry humor has a dark morbid tone to it. Don’t believe me when I say she is dark? During the filming of the music video for Cruel, she was buried up to her eyes and pseudo-water boarded. Both shots were the real thing; no special effects or tricks were used. Heck, any of her music videos will give you this vibe. As John repeatedly muttered during her show, “She’s a bad bad lady… a bad bad lady”.
Everything about St. Vincent reflects this hidden nature. I like to describe her music as having two voices, one is the beautiful and angelic voice of Annie Clark and the other is the intense and dark sound of her guitar. It is hard to tell from her album work, but anyone who has seen her live or listened to her new record-day 7” KROKODIL/GROT know that she is an amazing guitarist.
I would describe her live show like watching the two sides of her struggling for control but that would be a mistake. Her sweet and dark sides are in perfect harmony; there is no struggle. Sweet vocal lines take turns with face-melting guitar solos. Songs start off soft and sweet and devolve into noise at the climax before snapping back to coherency. Yet at the same time it all flows together perfectly to an unsettling degree.
This unified dichotomy is really easy to see in her lyrics. In Cheerleader (above) she claims “I’ve have good times with some bad guys, I’ve told whole lies with a half-smile” and states “I don’t know what I deserve but for you I could work”. In Dilettante she asks “What is so pressing that you can’t undress me anyway?” In Surgeon she alludes that she is a prostitute (she is not really). Hearing these words said by her angelic voice is disturbing. Her lyrics tell us that innocent appearance is nothing more than a lie. It is enough to make anyone uncomfortable.
Despite how easy it is to pick up on Clark’s dual nature in her lyrics, is also a core part of her music itself. Elegant baroque orchestrations and harder rock sentiments combine to create a wonderful pop sound that is half sweet, half bitter. What is so great about St. Vincent is how balanced her music is, the baroque side keeps it light while the more intense side keeps it from being overly elaborate and corny.
Having established what St. Vincent is usually like, I can now talk about her debut album Marry Me. Like most freshmen albums, it is not like the rest of her work. Many artists need time to find their sound and St. Vincent is no exception. In Marry Me, Clark hasn’t quite found the brilliantly smooth balance that I discussed above. Some songs are predominantly heavy while others are much more ethereal. Neither of the two types is bad, they just aren’t as brilliant as her later work. Speaking of which, I actually think that St. Vincent didn’t really find her sound until her third and most recent album, Strange Mercy. Actor is a great album, but it is still not quite there in terms of balance. Her collective body of work is like making a glass of Kool-Aid; add the sugar to the water and stir till completely mixed. Drink it too early and it tastes off, drink it when its ready and it’s delicious (and gives you diabetes).
That being said, St. Vincent wrote most of Marry Me when she was 18. Now I am going to go ahead and be ageist and say that it explains a lot. Most 18 year olds don’t have a great deal of life experience and don’t really know who they are yet. Thus younger artists tend to write less complex and interesting music. This is not always true, but Clark said this about Marry Me herself.
The album however really show what St. Vincent is capable of. The musicality and interesting instrumentation of her later work is there as is several musical techniques that she is a fan of later. Her guitar work and vocals are just as fantastic as her later work. Songs like Paris is Burning, and The Apocalypse Song (below) feel like she stole them from her future self, they are really great tracks. Marry Me is more on the soft end of the spectrum but is fantastic nonetheless. Now, Now, and Jesus Saves, I Spend are also good, though they are definitely a bit armature.
Marry Me also has some tracks that really surprised me, We Put a Pearl In the Ground is a really pretty piano piece that is nothing like anything else she has ever done. It is a really lovely song though it doesn’t really fit with the rest of her stull. The tone in Human Racing is also really different for St. Vincent.
The point I am trying to make is that Marry Me is a good album, but not great. It has some really great stuff on it, but isn’t complete. I highly recommend picking up a single or two off of it. The Apocalypse Song is definitely in my list of top St. Vincent songs. However, I don’t recommend buying the whole album unless you’re a fan of St. Vincent already. As I said, it is a freshman album and not her best work. If you’re new to St. Vincent, please check out Strange Mercy; I would go so far as to say it is one of the top 5 albums from last year.
Now back to my original argument, what is it about St. Vincent that makes me claim she is weirder than Lady Gaga? The answer can be summed in two core points, contrast and motive. Both artists create music that is off kilter. However, one only has to look at Gaga to know that she is different, whereas St. Vincent appears to be normal. The unexpectedness of St. Vincent’s weirdness only magnifies it, whereas Gaga’s consistency dampens hers. Scary movies aren’t as scary if you expect to be scared. The other reason St. Vincent is weirder is her motivation to be weird. I already explained how Gaga is weird for very normal reasons. St. Vincent is weird because that is just the way she is; she has no motivation.
Be on the lookout for St. Vincent’s joint work with David Byrne of the Talking heads coming out this fall.