St. Vincent has new music coming out soon, and that can only be a good thing. I didn’t listen to her until sometime after the release of her last album, Strange Mercy, the lead single from which was the slightly off-kilter “Cruel.” Only after the song popped up several times on the radio did I really vibe with what was going on. It’s busy, with partial melodies that have to work a bit to wrap around all the wonky guitar work. The opening is an operatic, distinct little prelude, then the song sets into its gripping beat while the line “forgive the kids for they don’t know how to live” really sets the tone. The little buzzing guitar pieces punctuate statements about things “casually cruel” such as people who “could take or leave you/ so they took you and they left you.” These strong, stinging lines are almost mocked by the uplifting single-word chorus of “cru-u-u-u-uell.” The song seems both a dark warning of future sets of judging eyes, but also a record of the past. This was the cruelty: know it. Yet the overall tune is buoyant, the echoey riffs and relentless beat providing something to move by. Not a celebration of cruelty…but perhaps an expunging?
The Head and the Heart drive a different street altogether, delivering a straightforward ballad about deciphering love’s mazes. There is plenty of piano and slide-guitar Americana supporting the conviction of “I swear I’ll come out of this, out of this.” Bringing in both male singers for separate verses is one of the stronger decisions here, and the song lifts nicely out of its plodding partway through (though the lyrics at this point, about “curls in your hair” and “a cool summer breeze” could use more depth). Right after this the apparent concept of the song twists. While the opening stanzas hint at sadness from received cruelty, the core of the song states: “tried being cruel/ it’s just not in me/ it’s just not in you.” It’s an interesting emotional game to hang a song on, lovers forced to attempt spite yet finding themselves unable to do so, leading to even more exasperation. The breakdown explains, “now that we’ve come to the end/ find that we’re right where we began.” This repeats until the whole crew seems to join in for the “tried being cruel” chorus as the song crescendos to its finale. The cruelty was non-existent all along, but it took a while to find this out.
Winner: Although the mood of The Head and the Heart song seems to better fit the title word at first glance, this is just not one of their more memorable efforts from Let’s Be Still. And maybe I was influenced by seeing Annie Clark command a stage like a possessed robot maestro who seems like she could shoot lasers from her guitar, but her songs continue to offer little treats and puzzles whenever you return to them. For example, how does she lift and linger on that single word in the chorus? I don’t quite get it. But I like it. St. Vincent gets the gold.
St. Vincent – Cruel (2011) – (Jools Holland performance)
The Head and the Heart – Cruel (2013) – (audio)
Trying to sketch “cruel” sounded like a bad round of Pictionary, so instead here’s St. Vincent: