St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
By wes jakacki
September 13, 2011
Judging on looks alone, Annie Clark looks about as fierce as a mouse. Clark, who goes by the musical moniker St. Vincent, is short in stature with cute, modest features and the sort of sweet curly black hair that brings to mind a more innocent time. But as clichéd as it is, appearances can be deceiving—and this couldn’t be more of the case when it comes to Ms. Clark.
While St. Vincent’s voice is beautiful in a very theatrical way on the surface, her music suggests something foul is brewing underneath. On her shining debut, Marry Me, this was displayed a little subtly with the occasional minor key or distorted guitar on her otherwise tender, quirky ballads. But on her second album, Actor, the darkness began to bubble up with tons of distorted guitar and dark lyrical undertones, especially on standouts “The Strangers” and “Marrow.” Now, on her latest release and finest album to date, Strange Mercy, the grunginess can no longer be tamed behind the sweet veneer and has become fully realized, creating some brilliant results.
“Chloe in the Afternoon” makes for a remarkably claustrophobic opening with its spacy atmospherics and off-kilter fuzz guitar, sounding like Bjork hiding out from robot zombies. Annie Clark spent time in the touring bands for both cultish pop collective Polyphonic Spree and folk prodigy Sufjan Stevens, but now more than ever, she sounds ready to take center stage. “Cheerleader” suggests just that, with Clark angstily announcing, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more,” confidently over-punching guitars and deep moog synths.
Strange Mercy serves as a coming-out party of sorts for St. Vincent as a creative artist, but more so as a guitar player. While it was clear before that Clark had a wonderful instrument in her voice, some of the guitar riffs and solos on Strange Mercy are, for lack of a better term, just flat-out gnarly. On “Surgeon,” over a heavy distorted bass and a wall of synths, Clark’s chorus riff creeps like bugs climbing the walls, climaxing with a synthesizer freak-out equipped with enough bleeps and bloops that it could have been a leftover on Sufjan’s Age of Adz. “Northern Lights” builds maniacally until it hits a riotous solo that sounds like the unruly shredding on Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers.” On the title track, Clark soulfully harmonizes her guitar with her tender singing as she attempts grace before losing her cool with her guitar, turning rough and ugly. Her wild, unconventional guitar play emotes an incredible range of feeling, placing her in an elite group of female guitarists today.
While Strange Mercy is first and foremost a noise rock album, it is sneaky funk beneath all the madness. First single “Cruel” is fairy tale-meets-noise rock and rollicking disco. The song starts off like Snow White waking from a nightmare but slowly gets a spring in its step, especially on its shimmering bridge that calls to mind Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” “Dilettante” has Clark strutting her stuff in a boisterous parade of brazen guitars, synths and saxophones. “Hysterical Strength” gallops into your consciousness, but proves again under all the deafening noise that Clark has a gift for fashioning some unforgettable pop melodies. This makes sense as St. Vincent wrote all the songs with just her guitar and voice before building upon it.
“I make a living telling people what they want to hear,” Clark announces on “Champagne Year.” This sense of putting on a mask seems to be a theme throughout much of St. Vincent’s catalog, both musically and lyrically. Much like Mad Men shines light on the immorality that really took place during a supposed golden age, Clark seems to find pleasure in valuing even painful honesty in her music. In her video for “Cruel,” Clark plays a housewife literally buried in the ground by her family, a morbid sight for sure, but something that domestic abuse or a simple lack of respect could cause a woman to feel. This sense of exposing the darkness is played masterfully in her music, her idyllic voice contrasted by her knack for disruptive, distorted guitars.
With Strange Mercy, St. Vincent has crafted wildly creative music that remains planted in classic pop song structures, something few others have done with such brilliance. Strange Mercy is a loud, thrilling pop ride with serious bite, making it one of the best albums of 2011.
Wes Jakacki blogs about music at http://littlebylisten.com/.