St. Vincent: “Strange Mercy”

The third St. Vincent album comes bolstered with not just one, but two songs of hopeful, New Years Eve resolve. Midway through the album, Annie Clark declares that it’s “going to be a champagne year,” and, at the album’s end, she refers to herself as “Tiger” before wondering if this might well be the “Year of the Tiger.” And it’s kind of funny: The narrators in these songs are clearly kidding themselves—and, based on the lives of quiet desperation Clark’s characters lead, they’re probably right to keep their hopes at bay—but for the singer herself, I dare say 2011 is going to be a pretty good one. Strange Mercy is a bold leap forward. If you’re not paying attention to this lady already, there’s a better than decent chance you will be soon.

The record is a masterful collection of jitters. It’s a boldly confident album, fueled by insecurity and doubt. Clark’s characters wrestle with issues of femininity—and, more broadly, with identity in general—and their revelations often come in the form of bleak psycho-sexual awakenings, sometimes accompanied with bursts of jolting violence. One gets the feeling that the women in these songs are seeking to assert control over situations in which their options are very limited. But Annie Clark has never seemed in greater control of her art. This is an expansive and full-bodied recording that blows past the homemade pop of Marry Me while also whittling away some of the more blown-up theatrical impulses of Actor.

It’s a heavy one, and it moves accordingly. The record’s sound is based in the deep tones of the Moog, which gives everything here a weightiness you might not expect; previous St. Vincent excursions had a certain lightness of step, a daintiness that isn’t replicated here. But if these songs lurch more than they dance, they do so only at Clark’s command. Indeed, Strange Mercy is nothing if not graceful; Clark employs her electric guitar primarily for texture, and unleashes solos with scalpel precision. Waves of synths and other faux-symphonic flourishes provide a sense of grandeur, but for the most part Clark’s art-rock leanings are scaled back in favor of something leaner and more muscular. Kate Bush is an obvious touchstone, I suppose, but Clark’s work is more intimate and concise. The way she punctuates synth waves with a guitar freakout here, a hip-hop beat there reminds me, in an odd way, of a laid-back Prince.

Opener “Chloe in the Afternoon” is a pretty fine example of the kind of dark, demented (and yes: strange) magic Clark weaves throughout this thing. It’s a song about sex—a midday tryst, I reckon—set to a hip-hop beat, but the song isn’t sexy, nor is it a summertime banger. Clark suggests a relationship that is consensual, perhaps, but nevertheless dehumanizing—no kisses, no names, we’re told—and the song itself is so warped, the beat becomes a menacing grind. The chorus is spare and eerie, almost a kind of monster movie moment.

“Cruel” is more sugary, more overt in its juxtaposition of bright sounds and dark imagery, and ultimately more insidious because of it. Symphonic synth washes make it one of the more cinematic things here, but the lyric—which imagines domesticity as a kind of bondage—is subversive. My favorite cut, though, is “Cheerleader,” wherein the narrator offers a litany of ways in which she’s been forced to be subservient, to let go of her own identity as she’s bled into someone else. Basically, Clark sings about not wanting to be on the sidelines any longer, and, with an album this fine in the can, it’s hard to imagine her ever taking on such a role again. (Worth noting: Clark used to tour as part of Sufjan Stevens’ band, and some of the material here actually makes for a fine, more digestible mirror image of the psycho/erotic menace on Age of Adz.)

Indeed, the album impresses on multiple levels—for the way its jet-black themes play against the inherent sweetness of Clark’s voice, and indeed, her very image; for the carefully-controlled palette, where the same combinations of analog keyboard flurries and shards of electric guitar create an uncommonly rich and deep array of sounds. But I like, most of all, that it speaks, with empowerment, to issues of sex and domesticity and social identity in a way that’s subversive, suggestive, and at times sublime. One of the best moments—and one of the few beams of light, or at least moments of calm—is the title cut. Here, a single mom pledges her vigilance in protecting a child who’s been abused and abandoned before. The child—or, perhaps, the very act of mothering—is a source of strength and of hope. A strange mercy, indeed, and a welcome wrinkle in this rather twisted but quite remarkable record.

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