Strange Mercy is the third album from artist Annie Clark, who sings under the name St. Vincent. She was whimsical and poppy on her debut Marry Me (2007), then dark and acerbic on her second album, Actor (2009). Throughout this musical journey, Clark’s lovely voice has guided us into at times murky territory.
In Strange Mercy, Clark creates vast soundscapes punctuated by sharp blasts of distorted guitar. Baroque pop also comes through in her innovative use of stringed instruments and complicated layers of sound. Clark’s singing is gorgeous and reassuring, even as her dark fantasy seeps through in the dense orchestral arrangements and otherworldly background vocals.
The album opens with “Chloe in the Afternoon,” the story of a quick sexual encounter, where Clark’s voice is a bit thinner, her delivery slightly breathless. An early single off the album, “Cruel” is a sweet, gritty tale of objectification, reinforced by the grim but comedic music video directed by Terri Timely, in which Clark plays a wife stifled by family life.
“Cheerleader” finds Clark playing an unhappy partner in a relationship, or perhaps an unhappy player on the world stage. It starts off quiet and demure, but as the character’s expresses resolve (“But I-I-I-I-I don’t wanna be your cheerleader no more”) the guitar rushes in to reinforce her.
In “Dilettante,” Clark’s character has been left behind in a relationship, and is straggling after another’s success. The guitar over the beautiful synth chords at the very end is enough to keep me coming back to this song over and over. Next, “Hysterical Strength” starts off with a quiet but frenzied riff, drops briefly into synthesizer, and finally becomes even more frantic as guitar and percussion join at the end.
Overall, the album is excellent and proves that Clark is still willing to push musical boundaries as she experiments with different orchestrations and ways of telling stories.
St. Vincent is one of those artists who might require multiple listens before she becomes truly accessible. Her music is gritty and dreamy all at once, sometimes cerebral, and always lyrically clever. Immerse yourself in her work, and you won’t regret it.
Strange Mercy is out now from 4AD Records.