Top Tracks: Cruel, Northern Lights, Dilettante.
The third album by St. Vincent (also known as Annie Clark) follows up her two previous albums (Marry Me and Actor) with a dirty sound and a dark soul that has only been hinted at through previous work. Musically, though, Clark is touching on ideas that she started with Now Now , beautifully arranged harmony occasionally dredged in the sludge of murky beats and guitar. What was merely hinted previously now comes to full bloom; Strange Mercy plunges face forward into the dark depths of the unconscious as conflict comes alive through discord.
Chloe In the Afternoon opens the album with a peek into the dual relationship between vocalist and music. Clark struggles to even get heard as the beat clangs around her and every gasping breath she can get in becomes drowned out by the ever-present guitar. At times it sounds like Clark wanted to be a mash-up artist and just slammed together two completely different tracks, one for a dirty grunge band and the other for some orchestrated indy-pop ensemble. The sounds produced is busier and much more complicated than her two previous albums, and while the density of the music might turn some people off, it gives the album a wickedly unsettling vibe.
After the schitzophrenic break-down of Chloe In the Afternoon, Cruel is a reassuring pat that the artist that some love hasn’t gone away for good. Like a one-time lover, Cruel smiles and shows the old bag of tricks, a catchy hook, simple melodies, and yet something’s different. It’s like returning home and finding your room exactly as you left it except for some disquieting stains on the ceiling and the clock is cracked. What was once familiar and lovable has now become alien and unnerving. This is most certainly one of the highlights of the album, mainly because it’s just so darkly catchy. Once again I must address the presence of the guitar, answering every call of “Cru-e-u-e-uel” with its guttering growl. Like two lovers in a spat Clark and the guitar go back and forth throughout the entire album, leading to times when she gets drowned out by an instrument of her own invention.
The guitar may be the point, like a hammer it reinforces and slams into her words during Cheerleader, and even descends upon itself and tears itself apart at the end of Surgeon. Clark is fighting against something out there, donning the persona of a very fractured soul. Whether the guitar represents exterior or interior forces of doubt and hate we can’t be sure, but she certainly struggles for her life. The first half of the album plays as an invocation and confrontation with whatever this force may be. From the primary clash of ideals in Chloe in the Afternoon following the airing of grievances in Cheerleader and the admittance of guilt in Surgeon. The climax of this struggle, and the entire album comes with Northern Lights. The most damning thing one can say against this song is that it wasn’t saved for last, because it’s one hell of an ending. But the confrontation is not the important part. The rest of the album can be seen as a rebuilding of confidence.
“Strange Mercy” isn’t a flawless album by any means. Surgeon takes too long to really get anywhere and seems more like a bridge between Cheerleader and Northern Lights. Strange Mercy, the title track for this whole shebang, is strangely anticlimactic. After coming off the blaring high of Northern Lights, it just drifts off into melancholy instead of actual adding anything to the album. Parts of the whole album seem to blend together, especially after Northern Lights, and it makes it hard sometimes to tell songs apart. Neutered Fruit is sadly forgettable, sadly unable to live up to it’s name Neutered Fruit. Which is pretty fun to say. You should go up to someone today and say Neutered Fruit to them, it would probably make their day (unless they were a St. Vincent fan, in which casethey would make a comment on what they think about the song, which would be a good conversation starter).
Bleakly shuffled in the middle is Champagne Year, where perhaps Clark takes a bit of time to reflect over her job as an artist. “I make a living telling people what they want to hear…” could just be a slip into a disenchanted character, or it could be an honest reflection on what she thinks she’s doing with songwriting. The only person who knows the real answer to that is Clark herself.
Toward the end of the album Clark brings in the motif of hunting. Like a loving stalker she croons that the “sharks are swimmin'” in Dilettante. The whole song oozes with sex and obsession, wanting something that is ultimately unattainable but just oh so close. The predator knows that the prey is out there, but unlike the beginning of the album in which Clark was at the mercy of the music, now she is in control. Proudly now she takes the prowl, triumphantly she shouts that it’s the Year of the Tiger (Tiger being the nickname one of her characters was called when she was a child). The world will look out because she has the power. Emerging from her struggles against whatever ailed her, Clark is back and now the whole world should know and fear her presence.
Overall “Strange Mercy” is an extremely good album, full of subtext and beautifully rich lyrics. There is a strong feminist stance hidden behind the lyrics, one of empowerment in the face of all the sorrow in the world. What makes the album so delightful is that it is all delivered with a melancholy smile on the face and a knife behind the back, just waiting to gut you when you least expect it.
Davis’ Rating: B-
Although I can see why people would like this, it most certainly is not my thing. What Adam loved about the busy sounds and the heavy guitar I found cringe-worthy. I took the album as being about a struggle with faith after the death of someone important. In Chloe in the Afternoon it sounds like there is a clash between things of this world and things that don’t belong, starting the idea of faith and how we interact with whatever higher power is out there. Unlike Adam, I don’t see Champagne Year as a down reflection on being an artist, yet it’s a pick-me-up. Someone saying that it’s all going to get better, and then in Year of the Tiger it brings it all together and turns a depressing life all around.