You won’t remember the long nights—coffee bars and black tights
And white thighs in shop windows
Where blonde assistants fully fashioned a world
Made of dummies (with no mummies or daddies to reject them).
When bombs were banned every sunday and The Shadows played F. B. I.
And tired young sax-players sold their instruments of torture
Sat in the station sharing wet dreams
Of Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, René Magritte, to name a few
Of the heroes who were too wise for their own good
Left the young brood to go on living without them.
—Ian Anderson, “From a Deadbeat to an Old Greaser”
Charlie Parker is one of the most divisive and controversial figures in jazz history, and jazz could not have survived without him.
He is divisive for several reasons. From the public perspective, he disconnected jazz from danceable rhythms, an unforgivable sin at a time when swing ruled the airwaves and jazz was virtually synonymous with dance. In doing so, he became an object of worship for the intellectual crowd, a haunting and mysterious figure whose music contained an endlessly impenetrable message with meaning available only to those who claimed the advanced aesthetic ability to understand it. The world was divided between those who dug Bird and those who thought his music ridiculously complex. Hero to beatniks, an enigma to the masses, Charlie Parker became a cult icon, having passed the ultimate litmus test of artistic credibility by croaking off before his time.
Biographies like Gary Giddins’ Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker make things worse by attempting to apply an analytical approach to the understanding of his music. Giddins’ annoying habit of always using the most arcane vocabulary when simple English would do also serves to make Parker more intimidating to the average listener. For example, he describes Parker is “autodidactic” instead of “self-taught.” Most of today’s musicians are self-taught, so they would relate to that word; only Greenwich Village snobs and English majors who never got over it would refer to Bird as an autodidact. Here’s Giddins’ description of the landmark recording of “Ko Ko,” an analysis designed to completely exclude anyone curious about Charlie Parker but unfamiliar with music theory:
Based on the chords of “Cherokee,” the specialty feature of Parker’s apprenticeship, “Ko Ko” heralded a new point of departure for jazz in the postwar era, an effect paralleling that of Armstrong’s “West End Blues” in 1928. Armstrong began with a clarion cadenza; “Ko Ko” opens with an equivalent jolt—a blistering eight-bar unison theme of daunting virtuosity, coupled with improvised eight-bar arabesques by Parker and Gillespie. Then Parker takes off for two choruses of engulfing originality, as though putting everything he knew into this single performance, imposing his will on the music and the musicians, setting forth a novel code with redoubtable nerve. Though improvised at tremendous velocity, his solo is colored with deft conceits: the clanging riff in the first eight bars, the casual reference to “High Society” at the outset of the second chorus, the chromatic arpeggios in the release.
Giddins, Gary (2013-09-01). Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Kindle Locations 951-958). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Yawn. That passage makes me want to fling every Charlie Parker record I own into the Seine. It is about as inviting as a cold bath. Believe me: Charlie Parker is way, way better than that.
The reason why jazz could not have survived without Charlie Parker is because jazz was careening towards an artistic dead-end, a victim of the popularity of swing. When something gets popular, moronic fans want to hear it over and over again, and they don’t want musicians mucking with it. While Ellington took a more gradual approach to change, Charlie Parker wanted to get on with it and play the things he kept hearing in his head. If he had not come along and expanded the possibilities of jazz, its growth as an art form might have ended with World War II. Parker made Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and many other modern greats possible, because he gave them permission to explore beyond the boundaries of the Saturday night dance extravaganza.
My goal in reviewing Charlie Parker is to bring him down to earth, yank him off the pedestal his worshippers have built for him with their snooty, protective arrogance, and hopefully inspire the curious to explore this fascinating artist. First, there are two things you need to understand about Charlie Parker’s music:
- Parker’s compositions are nearly always based on pre-existing material, usually standards. He borrowed the chord structures from pedestrian songs like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You,” then essentially deconstructed them and put them back together in a different form. Think of his approach as cubist: Parker takes the original chords and melody, tosses them into the air, grabs a few licks on their way down and then creates new melodies based on the new arrangement of pieces. Because his mind worked so fast and contained a vast library of riffs and melodies, occasionally you’ll hear him quoting melodies from other popular songs in the middle of a piece. You can always find a touch of the familiar in anything Charlie Parker ever played.
- Parker’s big discovery was that the twelve notes of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key. In the key of C, the twelve notes are all the letters and their sharps or flats: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B in ascending order; C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db. In other words, all the notes from C to C. This is important because tradition organizes Western music into either the major or minor keys, and the paradigm dictated to jazz soloists that they had to stick to the notes permitted by the key. Charlie Parker realized that as long as you resolved a melody to the root, you could pretty much go anywhere. That discovery multiplied possibilities by a millionfold, and even more when you add the blue notes between the notes. Curiously, metal musicians have used the chromatic scale more than other rock musicians, primarily because of the dissonance the chromatic scale can create.
It’s also important not to forget that while a musician may be theoretically brilliant and intellectually daring, if the guy sounds like shit, knowledge of all the complex possibilities of the chromatic scale won’t mean dick. Charlie Parker was much more than a theoretical genius: he was an amazing alto sax player. The sound of Charlie Parker’s sax is like no other, due to his generally vibrato-free approach, his tonal richness and his complete command of all those funny little keys on a saxophone. Forget the complexity: Bird kicks ass! The Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Sessions is a fabulous introduction to a great saxophone player, a man grounded in the blues and a witty improvisational artist.
The compilation opens with Bird as sideman on a Tiny Grimes’ session in a tune appropriately called “Tiny’s Tempo.” Orrin Keepnews, who compiled the collection, made a superb choice here, for this is probably the most accessible entrance to Charlie Parker’s music. It’s a basic uptempo blues number with a finger-snapping beat that would make for a great tune to accompany your entrance into the nightclub when you’re dressed to the nines and sashaying across the floor to join your half-drunken friends at a table near the stage. Parker’s solo comes first and it’s a stunner—his tone is marvelous, his phrasing scattered over the rhythms, his deep feel for the blues obvious to even the novice listener. Both Clyde Hart (piano) and Tiny Grimes (guitar) have nifty solos themselves, but I think they should have saved Bird for last—his solo is where the record peaks.
Now things really get interesting. Parker had been playing a song called “Cherokee” almost since arriving in New York in 1939. It had pretty much become his signature song, and he was sick to death of it. However, it was while playing “Cherokee” that he made his discovery of chromatic possibilities, having learned how to play the song in all 12 keys. During those early years in New York, Parker worked as a sideman while jamming after hours with guys like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian in Harlem spots like Minton’s Playhouse. There they created the new anti-swing form of music which became known as be-bop. Unfortunately, hardly anyone heard it. Due to a combination of a strike by the American Federation of Musicians and that little inconvenience called World War II, very few recordings were made in the United States during the period when be-bop was born. When Parker finally got the opportunity to lead a combo in recording session in November 1945, he reconstructed “Cherokee” to produce “Ko-Ko,” considered the first official be-bop recording ever made.
“Ko-Ko” flies at 300 beats per minute, almost twice as fast as most punk music. The thirty-two bar introduction is over in about twenty-four seconds, but that introduction is itself a call to revolution. On the first eight bars, Parker and Gillespie play together in unison at breakneck speed, a brief demonstration of the necessity for tight collaboration in this new form of music. Bird then gets two extended solos, flying all over the scale, improvising licks and stealing at least one from an older tune called “High Society.” Max Roach comes in for a booming drum solo, then we zip back to Bird and Dizzy for the finish. I could bore you with even more technical gibberish but the real question is, “How does it sound?” It sounds frigging fabulous, like Charlie Parker has flung open the prison door and the music is free again. His command of the saxophone is out of this world, and I’ve found that once you accustom yourself to the speed of be-bop, some of his other recordings seem positively dull in comparison. I love moments of liberation, and “Ko-Ko” is one of the most exciting.
We now shift to Los Angeles, where Charlie Parker is going to find himself a world of trouble and wind up in a state mental hospital for six months. At this point, Parker’s heroin addiction was well-established, and because the heroin supply in California was less than fluid, he resorted to daily doses of full quarts of whisky to ward off the shakes. How he managed to make some of the greatest recordings in jazz history during this period is a testament to the greatness inside him; it only makes you wonder what he might have accomplished if he had ever managed to completely free himself from the drug.
Recording sessions were arranged with Dial Records, and Parker formed a septet that included a very young and not-quite-sure-of-himself Miles Davis. The first cut from the Dial sessions is “Moose the Mooche,” a be-bop tribute to his drug dealer. Whenever I listen to this track on this particular compilation, it sounds positively draggy compared to “Ko-Ko,” even though it clocks in at 224 beats per minute—still quite a bit faster than punk. Once I adjust my heart rate accordingly, I find an unusually jolly, melodic and free-flowing number, though I find Roy Porter’s heaviness on the drums a constant distraction that interferes with my enjoyment of Parker’s solo (and Lucky Thompson’s hot and growly work on tenor sax). It’s followed by “Yardbird Suite,” one of my favorite listening experiences in be-bop. Vic McMillan (a last-minute replacement) provides a strong and steady foundation on the bass for the soloists, and the soloists seem much more relaxed and confident as a result. The motif is pleasant to the ear, but I just love how Parker dodges around it, spices it up and enhances the rhythm with unexpected pauses and starts.
“Ornithology” comes next, a co-creation of Parker and trumpeter Benny Harris (who does not appear on the record). The chord pattern is borrowed from “How High the Moon,” but you’d never recognize it once Charlie Parker is finished with it. The distinctive phrase that unites the song sounds like a bird fluttering its wings and ending the flutter with a question, as if the phrase is the musical equivalent of “Where now?” The tightness of the combo is remarkable, and the various themes and soloists wind in and out in a brilliant display of compositional variety and unity. It’s followed by the Dizzy Gillespie/Frank Paparelli “Night in Tunisia,” another jazz classic driven by half-step movements (Eb7 to Dm6) and a Latin bass line; the disappointment on this recording is with the trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie had headed back to New York, and Miles Davis still had a long way to go. Still, it’s a pretty sexy and exotic piece that kindles my desire to take up nude belly dancing someday.
After six months in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital (where Olivia de Havilland would film the movie The Snake Pit a couple of years later), Parker went into the studio with a trio that included Erroll Garner on piano, Red Callender on bass and Doc West on drums. The only recording from that session to make the cut for this compilation is “Cool Blues,” performed at a tempo more comfortable for Garner than be-bop speed. I think Garner does fine on his solos, but his support on the comps sound clunky to me, especially in comparison to the smoothness of Parker’s solos. At the next session Bird paid tribute to his temporary lodgings with “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded with a new supporting cast. The song is positively breezy, with much more fluid piano from Dodo Marmarosa (what a marvelous name!). Parker’s solo here is playful, melodic and full of rhythmic surprises; it’s another one I would recommend to first-time listeners. The tune hardly calls up images of a mental institution; I think it would make a great backdrop to the scene on Les Grands Boulevards de Paris on a sunny afternoon when the sidewalks are packed with happy shoppers and diners.
“Chasin’ the Byrd” reunites Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach, adding Tommy Potter on bass with the marvelous Bud Powell on the keyboard. The first thing you notice is that instead of playing the intro in unison, he and Miles perform a counterpoint duet. The established norm of playing be-bop in unison gave the music a stunning, in-your-face power; the counterpoint by contrast adds more depth and complexity. Parker’s tone on his solos is sweeter, less intense but still characterized by his ability to float over the base rhythm and establish his own directions. Miles is getting better, too, sounding more confident and willing to take more risks. Recorded at the same session, “Cheryl” is a Parker blues composition that Bill Kirchner called “one of Parker’s greatest lines . . . it avoids any hint of melodic repetition.” I think to say that he avoids any hint of repetition is too extreme, but it is a very diverse exploration of melody that would be better pictured as a convergence of flowing streams rather than through conventional staff notation. The Miles Davis composition “Milestones” follows, with John Lewis now on piano, Miles taking the leadership role and Charlie Parker on tenor sax. Keepnews theorizes that the switch had to do with Miles’ preference for the tenor, which manifested itself in the lineups of his golden period. Bird isn’t as nimble on the unfamiliar instrument, but his tone is nice and fat and he fits in nicely with the combo.
We now return to the Big Apple with Parker leading the Charlie Parker Quintet. As in punk, there were very few slow songs in early be-bop, so Parker’s rendition of the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You” is something of an anomaly. All I know is that Charlie Parker takes a song that had been done and done again and turns it into one of the most beautiful and sultry pieces of music I have ever heard. Parker’s ability to explore the areas beyond the written melody is on full display here, and while he makes some significant departures from the script, he never departs from the intent to create a thing of beauty. His instrumental voice and spontaneous phrasing capture the tension of desire and the complexities in an intimate relationship. The original Gershwhin lyrics could have been written for Charlie Parker, given his nomadic sex life (“Dozens of girls would storm up/I had to lock my door/somehow i couldn’t warm up/to one before”), and Parker expresses his yearning for “the one” in a way that sounds heartfelt and sincere, even if accompanied by sounds of internal struggle. With Miles following Charlie’s lead in terms of tone and delivery, “Embraceable You” is nothing less than one of the most beautiful and seductive jazz pieces on record.
In “Scrapple from the Apple” Parker molds “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I Got Rhythm” into one of his more memorable saxophone melodies and a rhythmic delight that makes you want to stand up and sing scat. In the same session, he recorded another ballad, “Out of Nowhere,” demonstrating once again that melodic complexity does not necessarily translate into cacophony. This is a stunning number, perfect for close dancing as you let the depth and diversity of his melodic lines bathe you in simmering tenderness. The curiously titled “Quasimodo” takes off on the structure of “Embraceable You,” speeds up the tempo and produces a starkly original melodic line. “Crazeology” gets us back to high-speed bop, furiously played. It’s as if Parker’s had enough of slow tempos and ballads and wants to shoot every drop of libido from his system. “Bluebird” is somewhere in between but very intriguing: it has the unison features of be-bop, albeit at a lower temperature, then eases into a series of solos where Parker clearly stands out. Miles doesn’t do too bad either, taking the first solo and making some wonderful explorations of his own, tempering the heat with a touch of the cool.
We’re now in the autumn of 1948 for Parker’s last sessions with Savoy. “Au-Leu-Cha” sticks with the “Honeysuckle Rose”/”I Got Rhythm” structure but what happens within the structure is quite different from “Scrapple from the Apple.” The counterpoint dominates, making for a more complex and interesting experience. As Keepnews noted, the solos flow more naturally, and there is a spontaneous playfulness about the music that is delightful to the ear. Still, I prefer Miles Davis’ version of this tune on ‘Round About Midnight. The more laid back “Parker’s Mood” could be Charlie Parker’s ultimate slow blues number. His rhythmic variations sound particularly stunning here, probably because blues solos in general have become rather pedestrian over the years and when you hear the unexpected in a tried-and-true formula, it’s always exciting and energizing. This exceptional collection wraps up with the speedy “Merry Go Round,” where Parker plays with the dizzying speed and intensity that defined him for many listeners, for good or for ill.
We should remove the shroud of mystery and the cloak of impenetrability from Charlie Parker’s shoulders. He was a musical genius who changed jazz forever and for the better, but at the core, he made compelling, exciting, clever and often beautiful music. While Parker’s life was tragically short, it would be even a greater tragedy to leave his music to the musicologists. Charlie Parker was as human as human gets, and his brilliance reflects the best of the human spirit.
As part of my research for a contemporary review, I’ll occasionally check out what other reviewers have written and skim through any interviews the artist has done to promote the work. I view both with great skepticism. Today’s music critics are predictably boring, arrogant and full of themselves: the reviews are often more about the reviewer than the artist. As far as artist interviews are concerned, I’m always aware that the relationship between artist and journalist is often problematic. Some artists think journalists are really thick, so they just make up shit to drive the journalist crazy. Others try to manipulate and charm them; some will make outrageous statements that they know will turn into publicity, based on the common wisdom that there is no such thing as bad publicity. When an artist talks about their intentions behind the work, I never know if I’m hearing spin or the truth, and in many ways, it hardly matters. What every artist has to understand is that they can’t control the meaning of a work once it becomes publicly available: people will attach their own meanings to it that may have no relation to the artist’s intention. This is how a song about urban squalor like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” became the soldiers’ anthem in the Vietnam War; it’s how a song about the shameful treatment of returning Vietnam veterans (“Born in the USA”) became a Reagan campaign song; it’s how people listening to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” ignore the attack on the sacred concept of private property and raise their voices in praise of America.
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) did her rounds like all the rest, leaving behind a trail of snippets relating to influences, themes, intentions and meanings. One comment stood out above the rest: that she’d recently read Miles Davis’ autobiography and was struck by his comment that how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like yourself. If you’ve ever read Miles’ autobiography, that is not a facile, superficial statement. The book is the story of one long bullshit-stripping experience, and the bullshit being stripped is Miles’ own. He not only had to get beyond all the expectations heaped on any talented artist, but he had to get past his own crap to discover his essence. Miles doesn’t just tell you that’s what he did, he recounts the story in graphic, painful, embarrassing detail—not as a catharsis but to show anyone with artistic ambitions how very difficult it is to strip the layers of façade and face the ugliness, fear, loneliness and uncertainty in the soul that interferes with the self-actualization essential to artistic achievement.
The role of the artist in society is one that has always fascinated me. When I lived in The City, I was exposed to all kinds of New Age philosophies, and while I have always been a spiritual skeptic, there’s usually a nugget or two in spiritual teachings that I find useful. One in particular spoke of the soul of the artist and that the lifelong task of the artist was to differentiate between world truths (what Everyone believes) and personal truths. Even more interesting was the assertion that the life path best suited to the development of the artist is rejection: deliberately placing oneself in situations of contrast to sharpen the difference between self and Everyone.
Both Miles Davis and St. Vincent have aspects of their lives that clearly indicate the choice of the rejection path. Both went to prestigious musical schools and dropped out. Both were blessed with the talent to be major mainstream stars but chose to follow their inner voices. I was hardly surprised to hear St. Vincent quoting Miles Davis: I’ve been listening to her music for years because I had the sense that she was on the path of rejection, of differentiating herself from Everyone.
I love people who do that.
The other thing I noticed in my research had to do with the reviews. All were positive, but they seemed almost apologetic that they were being positive. Some stopped to note that they considered Annie “eccentric” in a tone that seemed to imply, “But I’m not—I’m normal!” They talked about the usual crap that reviewers talk about—David Byrne, electronics, Annie’s roots, the “artiness” of it all—but rarely talked about how the music moved them or what it meant to them. In the end it seemed like they were doing their duty to avoid offending the art crowd by writing an obsequious review of one of the art crowd’s favorites but they really had no fucking idea what to make of St. Vincent.
Since men dominate the field of music criticism, I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of emotional-intuitive intelligence, but it still pisses me off. Harrumph!
So, let me be clear. I think it is going to be very difficult for any other artist to produce a record this year that comes close to the quality of St. Vincent. A great artist makes you think and feel while you’re enjoying the hell out of the music, and that’s exactly what St. Vincent did to me. She has one of the most beautiful and expressive voices on the scene today, yet avoids engaging in attention-grabbing histrionics. Many people may be put off by the preponderance of electronica, and I understand that skepticism, given all the people today who play with software and various effects without much knowledge or intentionality. I would encourage listeners to push past that resistance for two reasons: one, St. Vincent knows what she’s doing and uses sound to create magnificently rich and evocative soundscapes that merge beautifully with her lyrics; and two, her voice is generally clear and clean, without the layers of reverb that nearly every other vocalist automatically uses to distance themselves from the audience and make their truly trivial work sound terribly important. St. Vincent uses plenty of vocal effects, but when she applies a patch to her voice, she has a good reason for it.
I was turned on to St. Vincent several years ago by an extraordinary guitarist in Seattle whose taste in music I found questionable at best. Usually I’d listen to his recommendations and wind up moaning “Oh, for fuck’s sake” thirty seconds into the first track. But I did not feel that way about St. Vincent: I found her mesmerizing and extraordinarily gifted. On St. Vincent, she does nothing to dispel my admiration, and while my readers know that I’m never going to find perfection in any album, she comes pretty close—certainly as close as Amanda Palmer did in Theatre of Evil. I was fortunate enough to see her show at La Cigale last month and was absolutely knocked out by her performance. With fewer electronic patches in a live setting, her sound is delightfully rougher and edgier, her voice is as clear as spring water and she’s terribly sexy even when engaged in android-like choreographed moves.
St. Vincent opens with “Rattlesnake,” a recorded piece of one-woman theatre that is both gripping and illuminating. The scene is this: Annie is alone in the middle of nowhere in the Texas sands, buck-naked. Only the power lines serve to link her to civilization, described both in lyric and in the flickering buzz of the background music. The vocal effects make it sound like you’re hearing her thoughts: the voice sounds compressed in layers of brain cotton. As she surveys the scene, she casually notices the possibility of danger in her isolation while making a tenuous but comforting connection to the civilized world through art:
I see the snake holes dotted in the sand
As if the Seurat painted the Rio Grande
Am I the only the one in the only world?
As she ponders her isolation, primal, gut-level fear begins to speed through her nervous system, separating her further from the civilized self:
The only sound out here is my own breath
And my feet stuttering to make a path
Am I the only one in the only world?
Is that the wind finally picking up?
Is that a rattle sounding from the brush?
I’m not the only one in the only world
With the ironic discovery that the presence of the rattlesnake means she is not alone, her voice changes into an eerie laugh as the absurdity of the thought and her own vulnerability begin to engulf her. At this point, her vocal turns into that of a woman running in and out of breath as she flees the relentless danger, the relentless fear:
Running running running rattle behind me
Running running running no one will ever find me
Sweating sweating sweating rattle behind me
Running running running no one will ever find me
The tension builds through a ripping guitar solo before the music comes to a stop: there is no happy ending or ending of any kind. We are left with the image of the naked woman fleeing from the sudden appearance of a threat to survival that does not exist in the civilized world. It would be shocking indeed for any person used to the day-to-day with its illusion of safety to find themselves in such a predicament. The stripping of her clothes is symbolic of her desire to disconnect herself from civilization, which is itself disconnected from primal instinct. The symbolism of the power lines is multi-faceted; part of it lies in the question, “What shall we do with all this useless power?” when it is of no help whatsoever in a situation like this; but it also highlights the vulnerability inherent in our dependence on technology as a means of connecting to what we know as “the world.” This is a very wordy interpretation of a song that is better experienced: it hits you on an instinctual level and you find yourself hooked into the fear. Here, listen!
Annie returns to the mundane for “Birth in Reverse,” a melodic driver that exhibits her absurd sense of humor, her remarkable voice and her willingness to expand our perception of the commonplace:
Oh, what an ordinary day
Take out the garbage, masturbate
The song’s movement is accelerated by some superb guitar work full of hang-time syncopation and a steady drum beat. The lyrics are more ambiguous, but riffing off the artist’s assertion that the creation myth was a thematic thread and combining that with her continuing rebirth as an artist, I would interpret this “report from the edge” as “life in the middle of the social alienation that I need to feel to discover who I am.” She very specifically describes it as a “birth in reverse in America,” and that rings true with my own experience: one of my primary motivations for escaping the USA was the creepy feeling of living in a society that was choosing to move backwards. I saw a culture determined to eliminate rational thought and intelligent discussion and replace it with blind patriotism and a weird religious fundamentalism based the truly acrobatic connection between the faith of The Prince of Peace, worship of the military and the sacred right of gun ownership. Whether that was what St. Vincent had in mind or not, the song helped me clarify my own thoughts and feelings about my experience, and that’s the greatest gift an artist can give anyone.
“Prince Johnny” displays the beauty of Annie’s voice as she relates the tale of a relational black hole: those situations where you have a friend who is hell-bent on self-destruction but there isn’t a fucking thing you can do about it. You have to accept the fact that there’s an experience they need to have and respect their choices, no matter how much anguish you feel or how superior you think you are. Another more complex emotion is perceptively captured in the last verse: the frustration one feels when your well-intended compassion is devalued by the object of compassion, which in turn makes you reflect on the purity of your motives . . . and in turn forces you to defend your purity: “But honey don’t mistake my affection/For another spit and penny-style redemption/’Cause we’re all sons of someones.” The song is very moving and thought-provoking; the melodic movement is exceptionally strong; and St. Vincent’s phrasing is thoroughly captivating. It’s followed by “Huey Newton,” where Annie finds herself “entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones” in a stream-of-fragmented-consciousness induced by insomnia, recounting “flash cards” from Internet surfing, random memories, floating bits of mental material . . . the truly modern experience of the brain rummaging through stimuli on autopilot while working with a fried navigation system. Some might find this a cul-de-sac song, interesting but of limited appeal, but I would argue that the experience Annie conveys so vividly here is a very common, very human experience in a time when technology is becoming more deeply integrated with consciousness. I love the extended musical passage in the middle; this is one of her most fascination compositions.
The track “Digital Witness” exposes our weird, addictive, contradictory relationship with the Internet and social media. We bitch about privacy and post selfies and confessionals. We seek love, affection and attention through technology while remaining dimly aware that the relationships have little connection to reality. St. Vincent’s performance highlights how intentional and powerful she is when it comes to her performance and the words she chooses: when she tosses off the word “yeah” in between the lines of the verses, it immediately calls up a picture of someone with eyes fixed on the screen ignoring the living, breathing presence of another person in the room, a real person transformed into an irrelevant distraction while we focus on the unreal images that flow before our eyes. The fixation and ironic isolation of social media addiction is depicted quite literally and economically:
What’s the point of even sleeping?
If I can’t show it if you can’t see me?
What’s the point of doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?
There are two songs on St. Vincent that are sonically staged like Sinead O’Connor’s opuses that accentuate the vocal and shift the supporting music to deep background: both are deeply moving, achingly beautiful songs of human experience. The first is “I Prefer Your Love,” written about Annie’s experience of caring for her sick mother. The contrast between the irritating and trivial aspects of everyday life in the city (“Name-tagged tourists, sick at the sight of them/Tight-walking the sidewalk in spite of them”) and the humbling, focusing experience at the sick-bed vividly illustrates how easy it is to lose touch with what is important and who is important in our lives; the assumption that they will always be there for us proves to be a disturbingly fragile reality. The bedside scene that closes the song never fails to bring tears to my eyes and a touch of fear to my heart:
Sure as mother licking her finger to wipe the blush and
Smudge from my cheek and wonder what will become of your little one
But all the good in me is because of you
I prefer your love to Jesus
The “love of Jesus” seems a meaningless abstraction when the person who first gave you real, human love is suffering before your eyes. After listening to this song, I don’t know how anyone can dismiss St. Vincent with the dismissive term “eccentric.” This is as real and as human as it gets.
A tiny bouquet of power chords à la The Kinks’ “The Hard Way” opens “Regret,” one of my favorite performances on the album. St. Vincent’s voice shifts from a woman who’s just gotten out of bed to one soaring in flight with the beauty of the melody; both are terribly attractive and compelling. I love the wordplay in the first verse, which pretty much describes how my mind works in the morning: oh-another-day-background-noise-clever-thought-random-memories-including-my-fuck-ups-and-wish-I’d-dones:
Morning, pry the windows open
Let in what’s so terrifying
Summer is as faded as a lone cicada call
Memories so bright I gotta squint just to recall
Regret the words I’ve bitten more than the ones
I ever said
Regret does tend to turn us inward and make us aware of our existential isolation; the chorus “Who is the one animal all by yourself/All of us” is a simultaneously liberating and depressing reality. The diversity of sound throughout the song is fabulous, reflecting our many moods and directional shifts as we stumble through existence. I love the bite of the electric guitar and the bass movement in the arrangement; the layered sounds that fill my headphones in the verses and instrumental passages fill me with excitement. I also love the false ending after the lines, “I’m afraid of heaven because I can’t stand the heights/I’m afraid of you because I can’t be left behind.” After a second or two of silence, we hear Annie moan, “Oh well,” and the rhythm session explodes on cue, like the inexorable movement of the day. “Regret” is one of the most exciting new songs I’ve heard in a very long time.
As a BDSM practitioner, I’m intensely aware of the diverse possibilities of power exchange, which are not as rigid as the vanilla sex crowd may think. I’ve known many people who’ve switched from top to bottom and bottom to top as the power dynamics play themselves out. The track “Bring Me Your Loves” describes a power shift (“I took you off your leash/But I can’t, no I can’t make you heel”), but even more perceptive is the depiction of the ravenous sexual appetite common to those who take their sex seriously and playfully. You hear it in the demanding, staccato chorus (“Bring me your loves-all your loves-your loves-I wanna love them too ya know”) but even more vividly in the closing lines: “We both have our rabid hearts/Feral from the very start.” As long as the intensity is there, what does it matter who’s on top? The music is suitably gothic, and St. Vincent’s vocal sounds like her libido is pounding away with impatience.
“Psychopath” disarms you from the start because the images that the word calls up in your mind are not the sounds of an electronic power pop dance song. Like in “Regret,” we get to hear St. Vincent in low and high register, a contrast I could listen to forever. The simile where we hear the word “psychopath” reflects universal usage (“Runnin’ down the highway like a psychopath”), and what’s driving the feeling is the desire created by distance:
You said, “Honey, quit your worrying,
Distance is exactly like a blowing wind,
Putting out the embers and the tiny flames and
Keeping the big ones burning”
Driven by insistent bass and drums, this song flows with ease and yes, it’s a wonderful dance number. It’s followed by the layered rhythms of “Every Tear Disappears,” where subtle differences between the core rhythm, the synth rhythm and Annie’s phrasing come together to create the feeling of being in and out of sync—the dominant experience of human beings living in a jerky, hyper-speed world. When Annie sings, “Call the twenty-first century/Tell her ‘give us a break'” I want to shout, “Amen!”
Oh, god I hate the fuck out of it when great albums have to end, but if they have to end, going out with a song like “Severed Crossed Fingers” is the way to do it. I tear up just thinking about this extraordinary beautiful song, a statement that may surprise you if you haven’t heard the song and you’re reacting to the gruesome image in the title. The image is borrowed from a short story by the novelist Lorrie Moore, where you can read the line, “He thinks of severed, crossed fingers found perfectly survived in the wreckage of a local plane crash last year.” That is a powerful image of hope in the face of all logic and all odds; it makes me wonder how many severed crossed fingers were found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
In our daily lives, we hold on to hope in so many ways. Once I was working at a job I had come to loathe; I had started that job full of the youthful, naive belief that I could make a difference, but after months of dealing with mean-spirited political bullshit, I had turned bitter and cynical. An older guy I worked with—his name was Anthony—saw my distress and let me unload for a while. He said to me something I’ll never forget, “When the hope is gone, it’s all over.” I thought of Anthony as I heard St. Vincent’s opening lines:
When your calling ain’t calling back to you
I’ll be side-stage mouthing lines for you
Humiliated by age, terrified of youth
I got hope but my hope isn’t helping you
The last line echoes Annie’s despair in “Prince Johnny,” another situation where optimism failed as a change strategy. Throughout the song, St. Vincent keeps us suspended on that knife-edge of hopeless hope; whether it’s driven by our fear, our survival instinct or is simply a part of our DNA, it persists despite the evidence accumulated against it. She takes us through the ugliness of life that argues against hope and the deep bitterness we feel when hope is dashed . . . when we feel foolish for having believed in something . . . a relationship, a career, a spiritual belief:
Wake up puddle-eyed
Sleeping in a suit
The truth is ugly
Well, I feel ugly too . . .
Spitting our guts from their gears
Draining our spleen over years
Found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there
Well you stole the heart right out my chest
Changed the words that I know best
Found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there
The plaintive vocal of the bridge, set in deep background in contrast to the front-and-center vocal of the verses, reflects the anguish of the eternal struggle between hope and reality: “Holding on and on and on, enough, enough, enough.”
St. Vincent’s vocal performance on this song is simply one of the most powerful on record. Like on “I Prefer Your Love,” the soundscape is cleared for her vocal, and the sheer beauty of her voice combined with her intensely disciplined approach to singing—as if she is completely tuned into the meaning of every syllable and pause—makes for a listening experience that is the perfect marriage of artist, voice and human being. She told Pitchfork, “I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done,” and I completely believe it—this is not a performance created from spare parts. While the song expresses deep disappointment, the palpable humanity you hear in her voice reassures you that she is not likely to give up hope any time soon. Like Sisyphus, she has work to do, and Camus showed us that the meaning is in the struggle, in the hope itself.
All I know is this: after eight long months of slogging through new releases and hearing endless streams of mediocre, copycat crap, St. Vincent has restored my hope in the future of music. St. Vincent is a wondrous record, exquisitely arranged, superbly performed, accessible and complex at the same time. The songs themselves could easily be transformed into acoustic numbers; I figured out most of the chords during the second run-through. The simplicity of the chord structure allows for extensive experimentation, just as it does on Kind of Blue, and also helps focus the listener on the integration of music and lyrics. The melodies are delightful and compelling, and the supporting musicians talented and tight. St. Vincent has given us a gift that will endure for ages, and I will keep my fingers firmly crossed that she will continue to bless the world with her art for many years to come.