Artist: St. Vincent
Album: Strange Mercy
Well, here it is. The big 5-O-O. I made it to 500 songs, even though you and I both know I accidentally used "That Teenage Feeling" by Neko Case twice. Someday I'll figure out an elegant way to fix that.
In the meantime, I'm going to use tonight's post to make some restitution. I've been unduly critical of Annie Clark and mostly for issues that are almost entirely unrelated to her music. For reasons I don't really understand myself, I a) hate her stage name, St. Vincent, even when while understanding its clever origin (it's the hospital where Dylan Thomas died), and b) hate her association with David Byrne, who I generally like. If I could add a part two to my letter b, it would be that I hate that she is starting to look like a female version of David Byrne—see the cover of Digital Witness (2013). And yes, I did give a fair hearing to 2007's Actor, which I found unnecessarily quirky.
But I may have been wrong and I'm willing to admit it. "Cruel" is an amazing concoction that is as poppy as it is artful. And it fits perfectly with a concept I was explaining to my music theory class earlier today: the use of non-diatonic elements in a diatonic context. In the lesson, I was demonstrating how Baroque composer Henry Purcell uses descending chromaticism to illustrate a character's death in the recitative "Thy Hand, Belinda" from Dido and Aeneas.
While no such tone painting exists in "Cruel," there are some really interesting non-diatonic elements dressing up an otherwise (mostly) straightforward chord progression. The first of these flourishes occurs right at the outset of the track on the ascending vocal line. Clark sings a major scale in the tonic key of F#, but the keyboard (or vocoder or whatever) that supports her vocal is set to an interval that results in some very unusual (and clearly non-diatonic) parallelism. This is followed immediately by a chromatically descending chord progression. It's a captivating opening that quickly gives way to some harmonic normalcy (I-IV) and a slick guitar lick at 0:26. Later, at 2:10, we're offered a slowly creeping portamento in the keyboard that would have made George Martin proud. Another non-diatonic element that adds interest and intrigue to a very satisfying pop song. You win, St. Vincent—I'm a convert.