Album Review: St Vincent – ‘Strange Mercy’

Annie Clark's third album is a beguiling, beautiful gem

Virtuosity and accessibility have never been easy bedfellows, but ‘Strange Mercy’ is one of those rare albums that makes you think and makes you fall in love. If [a]St Vincent[/a]’s previous studio album, ‘Actor’, had us slavering on its release in 2009, it must now be regarded as progress in the historical sense, such is the inventiveness and cohesion here. Annie Clark’s third is a record of such assuredness that it staggers on first listen and, equally, with subsequent spins. Like [a]Sufjan Stevens[/a]’ ‘The Age Of Adz’ last year, it is one of those complete creations that gives up more intricacies with perseverance.

From the outset of ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’, Clark takes angst, confusion and bewilderment and makes them an art form. “You’re all legs, I’m all nerves/Black lacquered horse-hair whip”, she sings saucily and mysteriously over atmospheric Moog and squelching bass before a dirty hip-hop groove drops. ‘Cruel’, too, delivers an indelible hook and compelling, innovative guitar, augmented with a strange and ghostly cinematic refrain that could have been lifted from a pre-war dance. It winds away from a contemporary beat, practically ignoring the time signature, then, just at the point of discombobulation, you’re brought back into familiarity as if you’d never been away. It’s a neat trick that’s more than just smoke and mirrors.

Most interesting are the thematic references throughout to high school, a cathartic addressing of the past; “When I was young, coach called me the tiger”, Clark sings ruefully on ‘Year Of The Tiger’, longing for the precocity of youth that inevitably fades with age. While confessionals can be exercises in self-absorption in oh-so-many cases, the imagery here always stimulates and intrigues, most especially the all-American girl cliché which she turns on its head. On ‘Cheerleader’ she confesses: “I’ve seen America with no clothes on, but I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more”, and while this too clearly has personal resonance, it also captures the pervasive soul-searching of her fellow countrymen. Among all this intense intellectual wrangling sits the seductive title track, a song etched from beauty itself; Clark’s voice has never sounded so beguiling and her fretwork is tasteful, skilful and mesmeric.

It’s this combination of unforced sonic gorgeousness and a refusal to settle for the obvious that puts Clark in a field of her own, and makes for a strange and wonderful record that shows no mercy in blowing your mind.

Jeremy Allen