Great art often lies within paradox, and in St. Vincent’s latest and undoubtedly most ambitious effort, Strange Mercy, she has mastered it. Like the very best kind of lover, she pairs the gentle with the terrifying. St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) presents us with the grandiosity of someone like Prince, while still maintaining the airy, tender vocal restraint that is distinctly St. Vincent. Her trademark choir-girl voice soars lightly above increasingly dangerous and distorted sounds throughout, creating one monstrously gorgeous album that keeps listeners surprised yet soothed; coddled yet unsettled. If St. Vincent is our lover, she stays sweet by kissing us on the forehead, while her hands squeeze ever more tightly around our throat. This precarious balance she manages to uphold is divine.
St. Vincent’s third album is a very impressive musical representation of the powers of paradox and tension.
St. Vincent has taken on a much bigger sound—her physical vocals may remain gentle and demure, but her metaphorical musical voice seems to have been doing nothing but growing since 2009’s Actor. Actor was a great album that really showcased her songwriting ability, but what makes Strange Mercy a giant step ahead is its ambition. St. Vincent has kept her solid, sophisticated songwriting intact, but she has explored far different territory in terms of instrumentation, highlighting her shredding guitars with an electronica slant. Her use of distortion has never been more prevalent, and it works supremely well here, contributing to the album’s ambitious undertaking in cultivating stark contrasts.
Strange Mercy opens with the perfect and mind-blowing “Chloe in the Afternoon.” Clark’s voice whispers coy, mostly indiscernible phrases between aggressive guitar shredding. The two elements essentially trade fours, while big, highly syncopated and flat drums keep a heavy, driving pace in the background. When she starts singing the title words, the surprise of these new directions in production may knock the wind right out of you.
Like the most tempting but frustrating lover, St. Vincent teases us, song after song after song, with largely infrequent release. In other words, for all of our antsy anticipation, there is little tension released throughout the whole of this tension-heavy album. Every song features long, drawn-out melodic buildups, and only a couple resolve satisfactorily—sometimes only at the very end. One of these few is the second track, “Cruel,” which might be enough to explain its relentless catchiness. It is the album’s one example of regular satisfaction, cadencewise. The lack of melodic resolution is either an attempt to pioneer some new form of song structure that challenges the very idea of satisfying melodic resolution itself, or Clark simply digs herself into holes of rising tension so mammoth in size that she just doesn’t know how to get herself out of them in ways that aren’t slightly disappointing.
“Dilettante” and “Northern Lights,” for example, simply end. They finish abruptly on slightly satisfactory chords, and that’s the “end” to their respective ascensions in tension. And there isn’t anything particularly wrong with this method of release; it just begins to be noticeably frequent, disrupting the otherwise glorious, acid-triplike listening experience of Strange Mercy.
A seamless element of St. Vincent’s music, however, always has been her lyrics.
They always are unique and interesting, and they feature her mix of endearing feminine yearning and vengeful power. Strange Mercy seems to hint at what might have been a rough time for Clark regarding romance. She is chasing a lover (“Dilettante”), meditating on being on the receiving end of a lack of kindness (“Cruel”), and going far further than that by exploring what could be interpreted as a Freudian fusion of the maternal with the romantic (“Strange Mercy”).
All in all, St. Vincent’s third effort is one big, scary success. It features one of the strongest openings of the year so far, and, despite some melodic dissatisfaction and one slightly affected song (“Champagne Year”’s attempt at communion feels oddly false), it is a reminder of St. Vincent’s gifts as a songwriter, singer and guitarist. If this is the kind of ruthless innovation we can count on seeing in her future album releases, we have a ton of pure joy in store for us.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy Tracklist:
- “Chloe In the Afternoon”
- “Northern Lights”
- “Strange Mercy”
- “Neutered Fruit”
- “Champagne Year”
- “Hysterical Strength”
- “Year of the Tiger”