Music Reviews
Strange Mercy

St. Vincent Strange Mercy

(4AD) Rating - 9/10

After two albums noted more for Annie Clark’s voice than anything else, St. Vincent has brought in producer John Congleton, and the musical growth could not be any more apparent. From the anxious, almost masochistic lyrics and heavily distorted and tampered guitar work of Chloe in the Afternoon, we already know that this is a much different St. Vincent than we have heard in the past. The role of the music in conveying Annie Clark’s message has been upped, the lyrics are more personal, the production is richer, and Clark’s velvety voice is now threatening as often as it is beautiful; Strange Mercy is a more ambitious record featuring improved songwriting that is littered with Clark’s personal tribulations. Perhaps the finest example of Clark using her guitar and voice equally in revealing her feelings is in the catchy second track Cruel. Built largely around one riff, Cruel is the first of many songs to ask big questions of the world. Clark repeatedly croons “How can they be so casually cruel” and remarking that “they could take you or leave you/so they took you, then they left you” before launching into a guitar solo so fuzzy and ugly that it almost sounds computer generated—a clear display of discontent and Clark’s perception of an ugliness in the world today. The unsettling and poignant rhetoric is apparent throughout the record, and indeed, the album's closer Year of the Tiger emphasizes the line “Oh America, can I owe you one” before resolving to an unhappy, unchanging declaration that life in 2010 (the year of the tiger on the Chinese calendar) was just that. But these aren’t just the questions of an artist growing up; the lyrics of “Cheerleader” make the personal, dark roots of the album come to the surface, and it colors the album throughout, largely thanks to borrowed or only slightly altered motifs running from song to song throughout the album. Champagne Year is called out by name on Northern Lights, and the similarity between the melodies of Surgeon and Cheerleader is unmistakable. For the first time, Clark’s web of tough questions is endlessly relevant and touching, and every element of the album works together to make it a cohesive whole.

The personal, confessional nature is most effectively reinforced and displayed by the juxtaposition of instruments and tonal shifts within each of the songs individually. On Cruel, gentle woodwinds stand opposite one of the ugliest guitar solos of the year. Surgeon has strings play gently and delicately away in the background of a messy, erratic flurry of instrumentation. Strange Mercy starts off as one of the most delicate songs on the album, marked by sparse, clean guitar and a constant drum beat that accompanies a confession of Clark trying to find comfort amidst confusion and culminates with a release of anger in the form of a threat, accompanied by a louder drum track and distorted electric guitar, against the “dirty policeman who roughed you up.” But despite subtle, elegant build up to such a threat, it is suddenly second guessed when she adds “Oh, I don’t know what,” and it is precisely this juxtaposition of opposites that make Strange Mercy so remarkably enchanting. While Marry Me and Actor had clever lyrics, the songs were straightforward enough to hide any depth that may have been present. When Champagne Year begins “I secretly expected a choir at the shore and confetti through the fallen air” and sees Clark then tell you that her plan is imperfect and only enough “to keep the cobwebs clear,” all of the empowerment from Cheerleader seems to disappear. But the deeply personal nature of the album makes these contradictions all the more intriguing, and the lyrics all the more fascinating. They are glimpses into the life of a troubled woman, or perhaps just a grown up one trying to come to terms.

The density of Strange Mercy makes it easy to forget to mention that the songs are easily among the best and most fulfilled of St. Vincent’s career. Climaxes are built up throughout the song, abrupt shifts in mood are cued by lyrics and Clark’s tone, and melodies are rich enough to make former protégé Sufjan Stevens proud. There is no shortage of instrumentation and no lack of direction here, only a series of standout tracks. Cruel is perhaps the catchiest St. Vincent song to date, Surgeon the most mysterious, Strange Mercy the moodiest, and Year of the Tiger the most haunting. All of them and others here are contenders for her best.

It is rare that an artist gives us a glimpse into her life with such honesty, and as she strips down every aspect of American life—family, sexuality, independence, and, yes, the American dream—and states that she has “seen America with no clothes on,” it seems that this is Clark’s invitation to look at her the same way. Strange Mercy is an opportunity for listeners to see her as she is, with all of her scars and imperfections, but also as a strong, growing woman working to come to terms and succeed. And yet all these flaws only come to the surface with St. Vincent’s most sonically rich effort to date, and they illuminate the willpower of the artist exposing them. And that is perhaps the greatest juxtaposition of them all.