Over the weekend, St. Vincent’s upcoming album, Strange Mercy, started streaming on NPR. The woman behind the band, multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Annie Clark, started out as a member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ tour mate. She is known for juxtaposing sweet, Feist-like vocals with dark, often violent imagery. The disconnect between body and soul (that is, between the material and spiritual) is a central theme of her third album. The newest single, Cruel,” examines this disconnect in the context of the trivial cruelties of day to day family life.
“Cruel” lyrics here
St. Vincent is no stranger to religious imagery, which has been central to her work from the start. Her debut album,
“Cruel” is a darker exploration of that disconnect, and the video—which is like a Michael Haneke film in three minute form—makes this strikingly clear. Clark’s diminutive figure travels between background and foreground as a man, a girl and a boy, standing in as family members perpetrate violence against her.
It starts out with mundane tasks—she picks up her daughter’s stuffed bear and combs her hair, cleans a cut on her son’s hand, dances with her husband. None of these are particularly cruel in themselves, but Clark does them lifelessly, her face relaxed, inert, unresponsive. It is clear that all is not well, as the video juxtaposes scenes of bland domesticity with scenes of Clark standing in a dark pit.
Soon the mundane becomes the overtly cruel: The man and children place a bag over Clark’s head and stuff her in the trunk of a car. They dictate what she will wear, and she descends from the stairs in a soft yellow sundress that belies the agony we see on her face. The boy holds a gun to her head. The girl tries to drown her in the bathtub. Finally, the family starts shoveling dirt over the pit where she’s been standing to bury her alive.
This jarring violence is performed against a backdrop of upbeat synths and Clark’s soft, honeyed vocals. The song opens with a barely audible warning: Bodies—can’t you see what everybody wants from me?/ If you could want that too/Then you’d be happy. She must not simply do these things, but want to do them. As we see her body move through the motions, we know that her soul is dead and she’s just following orders. I don’t know that I read this as a simple critique of domestic family life—though that is partly what it is—as much as I see it as an exploration of the inhumanities of what social theorist T.W. Adorno would have called “administered society.”
In other words, the cruelty isn’t just that she has to do mundane things, but that she must also pretend to like them. In the process, she loses the spiritual aspects of herself; she’s nothing but a body. She chides herself for getting angry at the children: Forgive the kids/For they don’t know how to live. But she cannot shake the perception that they have been “casually cruel” given that They could take or leave you/So they took you/Then they left you. By the end of the song, she realizes that the other family members are Blowing past you/Blowing faster/’Til they can’t see you. They’re getting on with life, and not particularly attentive to the fact that she’s dying at their hands.
Like I said, I don’t think this is just about families. I think it’s about labor in general, and the “casual cruelty” of being asked to do soul-crushing things with a smile on your face. Maybe you’ve been asked to plan a birthday celebration for an abusive boss. Well, you shouldn’t be in the job if you’re not happy about it, right? Maybe you’ve worked in food service and dealt with customers who treat you like a servant. Well, of course this is what you are, isn’t it?
“Cruel” tells us that we have to be in it body and soul—anything less is unacceptable. There’s nothing special or significant about individuals as individuals. We are reduced to the functions we perform, and then told we have to smile sweetly about it.
Go and listen to the album! I wholeheartedly recommend it, dark themes and all.