Friday, January 6, 2012

Strange Mercy by St. Vincent

Strange Mercy by St. Vincent

St. Vincent, the nom-de-stage of "playful chanteuse [and] fearsome shredder" (NY Times) Annie Clark, releases her second album for 4AD, Strange Mercy. The record's 11 tracks showcase Clark's gift for fusing the cerebral and the visceral, her melodically elegant arrangements packing hefty emotional punches. Clark reunited with producer John Congleton and recorded the album in her hometown of Dallas, TX. Strange Mercy finds St. Vincent redefining the idea of the guitar hero, utilizing the instrument as a pointillist artist might wield a brush.

I will freely admit that I hadn't heard of St. Vincent until the Onion's A.V. Club told me that her 2009 album, Actor, was good and that I should listen to it.
Since learning of and thoroughly enjoying that album, I have been eagerly awaiting Annie Clark's latest release, Strange Mercy.

At first listen, the lead single, "Cruel", struck me as a bit mainstream compared to the majority of the previous album, but after listening to it in the framework of the rest of the album as a whole, I began to understand that this was not the case at all.
Strange Mercy, while less dense and involved than Actor, has a wonderfully experimental quality to a lot of it, with Clark placing herself in situations we have yet to see, which is always exciting and refreshing.
While this album is the most sparse we've seen from her (I don't consider her first album, Marry Me, sparse so much as dull), the choice to not go with typical instrumentation really pays off and creates a unique sound.

One aspect of St. Vincent's music has not changed on Strange Mercy and that is her guitar which still sounds like it's made of wasps and Stylophones. It has the ability to shock its way through the dreamy vocals and syrupy keyboards and keep the attention of the listener.
The combination of the warm, soporific elements and the bracing, unflinching electricity is compelling.
Add on top of that Clark's malleable and incredibly expressive vocal style which can be as piping and sharp as Bjork (as on the album's trance-inducing opener, "Chloe In The Afternoon") and as smooth and smoky as Fiona Apple (as on the quiet, bitter "Champagne Year").
Her voice allows us to feel the fear during the cacophonic climax of "Northern Lights", which features Clark shrilling repeatedly: "I saw the Northern Lights/Convinced it was the end of time".
"Neutered Fruit" is equal parts lighthearted, meandering stroll through a sunny garden and smoldering unrequited-love ballade ("Did you ever really stare at me/the way that I stared at you?"), again due to the versatility of her vocals.
The title track tells the sad tale of a mother and wife whose husband is in jail, the mood of the lyrics reinforced by some synths pulled straight from a rainy afternoon in the 80's.
The end of "Surgeon" also borrows a bit from the 80's...the funky part of the 80's.

One of my favorite tracks is "Cheerleader", which stands out with its smug yet confessional verses and angry, declarative chorus; the former is made up of a litany of high school-caliber sins set to the subtle strums of tentative guitars ("I've had good times with some bad guys/I've told whole lies with a half smile") while the latter is accompanied, first by a huge, buzzing drumbeat, then the full voice of both Clark and the rest of the band ("I don't want to be a cheerleader no more/I don't want to be a dirt eater no more").

The album isn't as epic or cinematic or welcoming as Actor; it takes more effort to completely enjoy, but, for some at least, it'll be worth it.
Personally, I enjoy Actor more than Strange Mercy, but the depth and innovation of the music here will surprise the listener.
I'm finding that this album goes right along with the image I've constructed in my mind of Annie Clark/St. Vincent through her music: she's timid, yet forceful, both unsure of herself and overconfident, one quality usually overcompensating for the other. Her music paints her as that one girl you know who is smart, funny, attractive and yet doesn't seem to know it and can never really find happiness because of her second guessing. Hopefully, this is not the case with the real Annie Clark, but, for the purpose of her art, I think the more problems she has, the better and more interesting the journey she brings us on will be.

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