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"Bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you?" Annie Clark wondered on "Cruel," a fitting obituary for a year in which bodies were pulled in every direction at once, for pleasure and pain, life and death. Clark's word choice is strategic: She's addressing not sentient beings (or "My Country," as Garbus does), but the assemblages of flesh and bone that are prone to inhuman actions. On "Surgeon," Strange Mercy becomes a salacious soap-opera hospital, and the invasiveness of surgery is conflated with the act of lovemaking. The song starts off dreamily, as if succumbing to a local anaesthetic, before building to the sort of orgasmic climax for which Prince should get residuals. Clark's repeated plea "Best finest surgeon, come cut me open" could emanate from a desperately injured person or one seeking a tabula rasa for her outward appearance.

Yet it remains. Even the smartest critics were taken aback by the sight of Clark's tiny frame slashing through Big Black's "Kerosene" at the Mercury Lounge in May, recasting its dark, nebbish machismo as something they didn't have language for, as if the Y chromosome alone contains the predisposition to fucking shred. In their own virtuosic manner, Garbus's remarkable live performances extend her body's built-in capacities with a simple loop pedal, collaging her own utterances to create an organic funk foundation with a fiercely primal urgency—the tribal face paint doesn't feel like an affectation.

w h o k i l l is at its most compelling when Garbus unleashes her most primal desires—the "jungle under my skin," as she calls it—particularly those that don't jibe with stereotypical understandings of bodily empowerment. On the sultry slow jam "Powa," she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession "my man likes me from behind," before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on "Riotriot," admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It's a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.

PJ Harvey tackles war head-on.
Jaswooduk's Photostream
PJ Harvey tackles war head-on.

Details

tUnE-yArDs
w h o k i l l (#1 album)

PJ Harvey
Let England Shake (#2 album)

St. Vincent
Strange Mercy (#12 album)

Pazz and Jop 2011
Essays
Joyful Noises
Finding the bright side of 2011
By Maura Johnston

Suffering from Realness
The spotlight shines on Adele's heartbreak
By Katherine St. Asaph

Written on the Body
tUnE-yArds, PJ Harvey, and St. Vincent get physical
By Eric Harvey

Guarding the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West try to bring back the group listen
By Mike Barthel

Games People Play
Lana Del Rey lights up the Internet
By Tom Ewing

Riding the Bummer
Drake and the Weeknd wallow in their miseries
By Nick Murray

The Incredible Shrinking Album
Pazz & Jop's album results get Soundscanned
By Chris Molanphy

Confuse the Market
Post-crossover, indie retreats
By Scott Plagenhoef

California Demise
Tyler, the Creator and EMA feel the bad vibes
By Jessica Hopper

Most Valuable Supporting Player
André 3000 has a great year without a single starring role
By Andy Hutchins

Just Dance
The year ravers and pop fans learned to (file) share
By Michaelangelo Matos

Comments
Top 10-Plus
The year's big albums, from tUnE-yArDs on down

Singles Going Steady
Rolling down from "The Deep"

Raves and Rants
Making cases for the great and the grating

The Personals
Feelings, whoa-whoa-whoa

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Garbus opens w h o k i l l by speaking truth to state power. By nicking the first two lines of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," she twists that song's claim—that America is made up of sacrificed human bodies—by boldly asking, like Harvey, if that's necessarily a good thing. As tribal drums layer atop one another, Garbus extends the metaphor of country as human, acknowledging her discomfort in her native land's embrace, its misdeeds in her name too egregious to overlook. She can't see a future within America's arms, but Garbus's own body politic will incorporate anyone. Most importantly, sacrificing one's body isn't required. The only rite of citizenship is answering in the affirmative to the question Garbus is known for yelling out in concert: "Do you wanna LIVE?!"

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3 comments
sayyes
sayyes

Wow, all this time I thought Annie Clark was singing: "Best FIND A surgeon/Come cut me open"—the reveal here kinda makes me like the song less. There was something so cheeky about her instructing someone to go get the doctor..."best finest surgeon" deflates the song's lyrical pointedness (for me). Boo.

Rinkelly
Rinkelly

It's 20fuckin12, isn't there a more interesting, less predictable way to approach the work of these musicians than pulling the female=physicality thing? Some of the passages here are eyeroll material of the highest order.Would it even cross one's mind to do the same thing with a disparate set of male musicians, razoring out this bit of lyrical content about the body (protip: the body is a constant subject in all music) and that, and then discussing the body shapes of the artists? I'd suggest that one is far less likely to go there and that this has zip to do with music, and that Harvey, Clark, Garbus et al deserve better. Oh and if critics were really taken aback by the sight of Willowy-Hot St. Vincent shredding like the boys, we need better critics.

 
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