St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) always takes listeners for a ride, and Strange Mercy, released on September 13, 2011, is no exception. At the risk of being overly simplistic, Clark’s debut album, Marry Me, was a quirky pop gem while its follow-up, the truly great Actor, steered St. Vincent into uncharted sonic territory. This third offering equals the former two in quality while producing more striking moments and standout tracks.
Strange Mercy confirms that Clark should apply for a patent on her sound—always unexpected rhythms, bright strings and melodies seemingly painted with Wizard of Oz colors, a regular crunch of deep synth and guitar that is clean as a clinic, and most of all, songs that are mini-adventures in themselves. The songs of St. Vincent at turns melt down, die, catch on fire, flatline, resurrect, teleport, and explode. You may feel like you are on a runaway train, pumped along by overwhelming drums and guitars (hear “Northern Lights”), and you brace for a collision only to suddenly float above the impending doom with a gust from Clark’s swirling voice.
While this album can easily be traced back to its predecessors, there is plenty to set it apart. While Clark’s voice and lyrics tend to have a half-siren/half-Willy-Wonka-in-the-crazy-tunnel unapproachable danger about them, there are more traces of vulnerability here than before. “Hear my hurt,” Clark cries at one point, while later pleading to be cut open in “Surgeon.”
The lyrical content is also a little less opaque here. While the basic goal of any art should be the thing itself (a worthwhile experience of sound, as St. Vincent has already mastered), art that becomes transcendent must be a bit more ambitious in its message. This album takes some stabs at bigger targets; “Cheerleader” is the most explicitly political track. It still feels like the project is just tip-toeing in that direction, but we should be thankful for the caution and subtlety; the force of the work could easily be abused and propagandized. Clark is aware of that trap, singing “I make a living telling people what they wanna hear” in “Champagne Year.”
There are delightful moments scattered throughout the album. An impossibly catchy melody and accompanying riff in “Cruel”; a chaotic interlude on “Northern Lights” as the machines in the artists’ hands wake up and start a rebellion; and a beautiful guitar line lingers in the distance throughout “Champagne Yea.” In “Surgeon” Clark inhabits an ’80s chorus and then pumps St. Vincent steroids through its veins; an outro guitar solo puts “Dilettante” to bed perfectly. “Year of the Tiger” closes the album with a haunted but charming character. The only trick I didn’t totally enjoy and/or understand was the funky “Neutered Fruit,” which breaks down with some talkbox and whammy bar that seemed forced.
Strange Mercy is what we’ve come to expect from St. Vincent: a rare combination of innovations that is both exciting and lasting, and even more so than the stellar portfolio already under Clark’s belt. I give it a 2.5/3 on my truth/goodness/beauty doohickey.