One of the things I love most about Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is that she’s an incredibly warm person in real life. Her candid, friendly presence in interviews was what actually inspired me to give her (and, strangely, Arrested Development) a second shot. I’ve never regretted doing so; she’s incredibly reliable as an artist, and isn’t shy about explaining the meaning behind her art. She really doesn’t need to, though; on Marry Me and Actor, the stories told were incredibly self-explanatory, and devoid of convoluted metaphors. Is it really hard to interpret a line like “I’m a wife in watercolors / I can wash away?” Of course not. And that’s part of her magic: you could hold a lecture series based on the decoding of any given Bjork record. The same isn’t true of Clark.
Another thing that’s incredibly wonderful about her is that she can reinvent herself as she sees fit, and it never feels unsure or rough. Though I didn’t like it at first, when I first listened to Marry Me, I never thought for a second that it was the work of someone just releasing a solo record, due to the fact that it came out gracefully, and without reservations. Strange Mercy marks the third transformation of Clark, and it’s hard to adjust to at first. There was something lush and gorgeous about Actor, with all of its string swoops and stereo vocals. Those two things are removed completely in favor of an almost claustrophobic, fuzz-driven sound. It’s immediately noticeable: ten seconds in, her overdriven guitar floods the mix, almost boiling away everything else around it. It almost overpowers her pleading: “heal my hurt.” This becomes a common theme for the record, and it even shows on the cover: cries for help are stifled herein.
What makes Strange Mercy remarkable is the fact that, despite feeling much smaller in scope than its predecessors, it’s still one of the most lush albums you’re bound to hear all year. Clark wields her guitar in a way that sounds as though the instrument is being raped, and yet it serves as the perfect counterweight to everything that happens on a typical St. Vincent record: its overblown nature is an odd, and sometimes ugly, reflection of the often despicable things that go on in some of her songs; it almost sounds itchy at times, especially when it slogs alongside the sickly drum machine pounding that amplifies the tension in just about every song.
Three albums on, it seems that she’s become a lot less adept at masking the routine malaise that coated her work thus far. She comes off at vulnerable, even scared in places, which is a drastic change from her incredible stoicism in the face of failing relationships, both romantic or otherwise. At times, it plays like Clark’s idea of a breakup album, like what would might have happened if Blood on the Tracks were made by a sober genius, instead of a drunken one. “I know honest thieves I call family / I’ve seen America with no clothes on,” she recalls on “Cheerleader,” opining the downsides of her profession being her life as an open book. On “Champagne Year,” when she sings, “I make a living telling people what they want to hear / It’s not a killing, but it keeps the cobwebs clear,” it comes across as almost remorseful, and it yearns for a change.
Two years ago, Clark sang an incredibly simple sentiment, and its message still rings true here on Strange Mercy: “save me from what I want.” She’s still noticeably happy in performances and in interviews, but if you didn’t know better, you’d wonder exactly how much of her music is autobiographical. The problem, of course, is that immense pain makes for great art, and even if her pain is fictional, it has made for incredible music. Would she still be so powerful without this desire for strange mercy? I’m inclined to say that, as the years go on, she’ll make everything she touches look effortless.