Annie Clark, better known by her stage name of St. Vincent, has mastered her unique sound on her third album, Strange Mercy. Her chosen pseudonym is an allusion to St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center where poet Dylan Thomas died; she attributes her name choice as referring to where poetry goes to die. In contrast, with Strange Mercy she manages to be so daintily feminine and yet so wickedly coarse that she creates a poetry all her own.
Benefiting from experience working with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Polyphonic Spree, and Bon Iver, Clark’s sound has so many varied influences that somehow merge to create a cacophonous masterpiece. With 2007’s debut Marry Me, we saw Clark’s demure whimsicality; with 2009’s Actor, we were introduced to the more biting side of St. Vincent. Strange Mercy beautifully combines the light with the rough to create an album that floats like a butterfly but stings like a bee (or perhaps a whole swarm of killer bees).
Like her music, Clark is a walking contradiction. Standing small and sweet, you’d never expect the aggression delivered by her vocals and guitar shredding. Meanwhile, her songs employ beautifully fanciful vocals against celestial backdrops that often get slammed by some of the coolest guitar riffs she has put out thus far. With this stark contrast, Strange Mercy delivers song after song of serene vocals against a brutal rock backdrop. The entire album is a fascinating juxtaposition of her beautifully pristine voice against thumping bass and squealing guitars.
In the July-released “Surgeon,” there is an overarching feeling of haunting darkness masked by beauty, which promptly invites a synth keyboard breakdown near the end. “Cruel,” which had a successful music video debut last month, is one of the more accessible tracks on the album, delivering some catchy pop. This track touches on a repeated message throughout the album, that of lament for not being one’s self; with lyrics like “Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you? If you could want that, too, then you’ll be happy,” she addresses wanting something different for yourself than what others may want. This sentiment is continued in “Cheerleader,” bemoaning a past ill-spent while now declaring independence. The staccato rhythmic repetition of this track certainly gets lodged in your brain, much like the upbeat nature of “Dilettante.”
For jarringly wistful tracks, take note of the retrospective regret of “Champagne Year” and “Northern Lights.” In the same introspective vein, “Year of the Tiger” provides a social commentary on the country’s debt with lyrics like “Oh, America, can I owe you one?” The opening track “Chloe in the Afternoon” alludes to a story about an adulterous man overcome with conscience amidst a tryst, and is a darker, dizzying track.
Overall, this album takes unexpected elements and combines them into a bewilderingly mesmerizing tour de force. It is clear that Clark has mastered her sound in this third album and will undoubtedly receive a well-deserved following. With ease, St. Vincent combines cosmic sounds, chamber pop, and filthy guitar rock to create a sound both so genuine and so mysterious that Strange Mercy can (and should) be played again and again.