In pop music, we conventionally associate sincerity with simplicity: three chords and the truth, preferably with acoustic guitar. Annie Clark (who performs as St. Vincent) momentarily plays to type when she tells us on her third album that she's had it with pretense. “I've played dumb when I knew better, I've tried too hard to be clever,” she sings, while strumming a very plain harmony.
But Clark is clever, and her music isn't simple. Strange Mercy is full of puzzles waiting to be solved, disorientations to overcome. It's more like life than other pop music, and it got that way by putting together aspects of pop music that don't conventionally fit. It's an essay in recombinant sincerity.
The first track is almost a manifesto for the rest. The warbly keyboards, aggressive guitars and upright drum beats are all in time with each other, but seem like they're speaking different languages. Clark's airy unconcerned voice floats over the top, like the voice of a hostess who has deliberately filled her party with people who don't go together, just to see how the sparks fly.
The disc is full of stylistic mash-ups, marrying sugary vintage Broadway moves with dirty guitars, disco rhythms and funk outbreaks. Surgeon opens with a lush wordless melody, like something from a high-class fifties musical, gains drums and bass for the lyrics (about being cut open), before following an early guitar clue into a full-on funk explosion. Northern Lights follows a similar path, ending up with a synthesizer bit that sounds like a battle between wasp colonies.
“Did you ever really stare at me, like I stared at you?” Clark sings in Neutered Fruit, over a distant floating chorus, and again we seem to be getting to something vulnerable and essential. But then drums and guitar come in, all stubby and full of broad daylight, not apparently supportive of sentimental recollection at all. But isn't that how it is? The world doesn't actually go all soft-focus when we're having a moment, as Clark herself has to remember sometimes. “So I thought I'd learned my lesson, but I secretly expected / a choir at the shore and confetti through the falling air,” she sings in Champagne Year, her clear light voice crumbling, for once, at the bottom of her register.
Mostly she sings close to the ear, so close you can hear every intake of breath. Surely that voice, addressing us so intimately, wouldn't lie, or won't any more. “I've told whole lies with a half-smile,” she sings, and you feel that she's going straight from now on, but then the music bends and bursts in a way you don't expect. Her evident artifice challenges us to acknowledge what we might like to overlook: that every pop song contains artifice. Sincerity can be a pose like any other. The truth can resemble an illusion.
I'm tempted to think that Clark’s affection for the sheen and sunny promise of old Tin Pan Alley songwriting – which haunts the album from start to finish – and her own rather virginal voice, are the source of her investigations in the mucky backstories of pop-music truth. It's hard to listen to the young Judy Garland without hearing the layers of cunning premeditation that underlay what she was singing and how she sang it. Back then, that wasn't so obvious; expectations were different. Annie Clark, truth seeker, is sawing away the expectations of the present, which in my book makes her the voice of the future.
- St. Vincent
Other new releases
POP: Beautiful Imperfections
- Three stars
Asa is a young singer who grew up in Nigeria, records in France and mostly sings in English. This record, out in Europe last year but released here only this week, shows her making a move on the kind of sunny, soul-inflected pop popularized by Corinne Bailey Rae. Some of the writing is strong, especially in the cracker-jack single Be My Man, in the jaunty Broda Ole (sung in Yoruba) and in the dark gospel number Preacher Man. Asa's coffee-toned, sans serif vocals work best when they're left in their natural state, as in Broda Ole and the single: in a few other songs, she has been Auto-Tuned to a near-instrumental level. There are also a few too many tunes that feel musically tired, as if someone thought it would be best to pad up a really good EP with a few off-the-shelf numbers. Wrong. Robert Everett-Green
CLASSICAL: Gioachino Rossini: William Tell
- Gerald Finley, John Osborn, Malin Byström, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Elena Zanthoudakis
- The Orchestra e Coro dell’accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
- EMI Classics
- Four stars
Who hasn’t heard the end of the overture to William Tell, forever associated with The Lone Ranger? On the other hand, who has ever actually seen the opera – the Metropolitan Opera hasn't staged it since 1931. EMI’s splendid live recording of a concert production of William Tell ought to have companies scrambling to program it, despite its length (almost four hours), the huge number of choruses (lots of costume changes) and its tricky casting (the tenor’s part is extremely high). John Osborn makes that part sound thrilling and easy here, the cast and choruses are exemplary and Antonio Pappano conducts with such brilliant definition and edgy momentum that Tell is shooting the apple off his son’s head before you know it. With music this vivid, you can almost see that apple fly. Elissa Poole
ROCK: Black and White America
- Lenny Kravitz
- One and a half stars
Lenny Kravitz, no longer particularly relevant, has made a dispensable album that is sometimes black (slap-bass and retro-soul horns) and other times white (sharp angles and synthesizers), but rarely up to par. Hip hop star Drake mails in his contribution to the wilting R&B smoothie Sunflower. Gritty funk-rocker Come On Get It, like the rest of the album, is let down by its lyrics – generic words that’d make even the Red Hot Chilli Peppers wince: “You know that I’m drunk for your love, and you know that I need it / yeah, yeah.” Kravitz used to be beautiful, but the title track is a bad ‘70s sitcom theme. It ain’t over ’til its over, and then it is. Brad Wheeler
FOLK: A Creature I Don’t Know
- Laura Marling
- Three and a half stars
British folk siren Laura Marling is 21, has two Mercury prize nominations already under her belt, and her third album is a charm. She is inspired by John Steinbeck (on Salinas, a mother is “the saviour/of six feet of bad behaviour”) and she conjures a duskier Joni Mitchell. There is drama to her music; arrangements grow bold as they go, with lyrical themes of lightness and darkness, angels and beasts, and a “love driven by rage.” Though the Cohen-esque waltz of Night After Night is tensely quiet, Marling’s mind drifts loudly, impossible not to hear. Brad Wheeler
Laura Marling plays Toronto’s Great Hall, Sept. 23; Montreal’s Corona, Sept. 24.