Pop Outside ‘Pop’ pt. 1 – St. Vincent

Let’s cut the bullshit, friends. When I or you or anyone says ‘pop’ we are referring to an incredibly broad genre. Have you ever thought that The Beatles – pre-eminent pop band of the world ever – are a pop band? And that Ke$ha is a pop artist? And therefore the two occupy the same segmented space in the music landscape? It’s a scary thought (the amount of glitter Ke$ha wears would’ve made the Fab Four trip balls).

So this is a thing I might start doing fairly regularly of songs I love/am loving which slot easily into the pop spectrum (there’s a euphemism here, I know it!). The first artist I want to feature is St. Vincent – the moniker of multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark. Clark is one of those people who really thinks about her music, really crafts it. There’s always a theme at work and everything is meticulously done. Also, her songs reflect on herself, as she reflects on her songs.

Part of her intrigue is that she looks like some kind of Elven queen. She has toured as part of the band for Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, and collaborated with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) on the song Rosyln on the Twilight Eclipse soundtrack. She is clearly an incredibly intelligent woman, and says awesome shit like this:

Her stage name is a reference to Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died in 1953. “It’s the place where poetry comes to die,” she has said. “That’s me.”

The key to her music is that it is unsettling. There’s always a vague undercurrent of dread, as though something bad has, or will, happen. And it makes for incredibly fascinating music. Structurally, a song like Marrow is beautiful and dangerous at the same time:

The contrast between her serene, pretty voice, the fluttering clarinet, the distorted guitar and the saxophone’s skronk is impeccable. The way all the elements crash together at the end is great. And the video for it is dark and uncomfortable, matching the lyrics, like, “So I pretend these aren’t ten strings attached to all ten of my fingers.” There’s no menace in those doe eyes, but there certainly are in her words.

Another great example is the song Actor Out Of Work, which is another case of a perfectly matched music video. She sits and watches, her face blank and ambiguous, as wannabe actors force themselves to cry for her. The juxtaposition with the lyrics is the kind of thing that’d make musical theorists jizz themselves, as she calls these actors supplements, salves, bandages, liars, extras, patients.

Her most recent single comes from her forthcoming album Strange Mercy, which already hints at a delightfully dark theme. The song, Surgeon, is mostly unassuming at first, but gradually everything goes haywire, like the beeping of a heart monitor spiralling out of control. The song was preluded by four teaser videos which give a good outline as to what the title of the album is referring to:

And finally, the song itself, which begins with the gloriously ambiguous opening line, “I spent the summer on by back.” Surgery? Sex? Both? Where do the two intersect? Not often enough does pop music make you think about what it really is, or what it might be, or what it isn’t. Granted, it’s hardly conventional pop, but it’s pop nonetheless. The melodies and sensibilities are all there, and Clark takes conventions like a guitar solo, melts it down, and builds it back up in a grotesque, but intriguing, form. I can’t really gush enough about how interesting this music is to me. To you? Perhaps not as much, but I really think you should give her a go.

3 thoughts on “Pop Outside ‘Pop’ pt. 1 – St. Vincent

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