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 ‘[b]Strange Mercy[/b]’ 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, ‘[b]Actor[/b]’, 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. [b]Annie Clark[/b]’s third is a record of such assuredness that it staggers on first listen and, equally, with subsequent spins. Like [a]Sufjan Stevens[/a]’ ‘[b]The Age Of Adz[/b]’ last year, it is one of those complete creations that gives up more intricacies with perseverance.

From the outset of ‘[b]Chloe In The Afternoon[/b]’, Clark takes angst, confusion and bewilderment and makes them an art form. “[i]You’re all legs, I’m all nerves/Black lacquered horse-hair whip[/i]”, she sings saucily and mysteriously over atmospheric Moog and squelching bass before a dirty hip-hop groove drops. ‘[b]Cruel[/b]’, 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; “[i]When I was young, coach called me the tiger[/i]”, Clark sings ruefully on ‘[b]Year Of The Tiger[/b]’, 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 ‘[b]Cheerleader[/b]’ she confesses: “[i]I’ve seen America with no clothes on, but I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more[/i]”, 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

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Details

  • Record label: 4AD
  • Release date: 12 Sep, 2011
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