St Vincent, Strange Mercy

Written for Wears the Trousers 30.08.11

After her virtuoso debut Marry Me and 2009’s nicely disorientating follow-up Actor, singer and guitarist Annie Clark returns with this itchily anticipated third album. Recorded in her pre-Manhattan hometown of Dallas, Texas, Strange Mercy enlists the assistance of several musicians, including Beck’s musical director Brian LeBarton on keyboards, but Clark has no problem asserting her own musical, lyrical and vocal presence here. Her original concept for the album was to “redefine the idea of the guitar hero, utilising the instrument as a pointillist artist might wield a brush,” and it’s an approach which translates into a glistening, lush and luxuriant listen, full of digital cascades and string-laden crescendos, underpinned by an unsteady percussive stomp. The overall effect evokes a more fragile mid-period Blondie, or Goldfrapp with less of the sledgehammer sleaziness.

On the disjointed opening track ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ (a narrative nod to the 1972 Éric Rohmer film of the same name), Clark weaves an uncertain, throaty falsetto around a sinewy backbeat, and the rest of the eleven tracks here take their cue from this model, spinning varying degrees of tension between a muscular musical base and an ethereal vocal superstructure. Clark’s poised and sometimes mannered vocals lend the album an unshakeable elegance despite the frequently dizzy rush of the music; while she takes an audible pleasure in playing with her words, her delivery is fastidious and precise, leaving it to her instrumental backdrop to suggest a more intense catharsis, unease or anxiety. ‘Surgeon’ weds its sweetly-sung morbid confessional to a panicky backing chirrup, while the close of ’Northern Lights’ erupts in a welter of synth, clavinet and thunderous drums, lighting up the song’s apocalyptic imaginings like fireworks against a night sky.

As the above suggests, this album sees a continuation of Actor’s concern with articulating conflict and discomfort underneath the superficially glossy and composed. The material for Strange Mercy was written while holed up alone in an autumnal Seattle, where Clark spent twelve-hour days in the studio and did little other than write and record. On one hand, the album’s feeling of space and drama belies these isolated and confined conditions, but from another perspective the songs display a congruent sense of introspection and atomisation, of inner worlds being delineated and darkly explored. The languorous, brooding title track sketches the narrator’s maternal or maybe sexual affinity with brutalised, outcast and marginalised “lost boys”, and the languid lilt of ‘Champagne Year’ brims with a quiet despair wryly acknowledged in both lyrics and delivery.

The closing ‘Year Of The Tiger’ (co-written with her mum, Sharon Clark) is another fuzzy and fretful rumination, this time concerning the lost invincibility of youth, but in among these sober reflections Clark finds time to loosen up. At times she’s a sequin-clad ringmaster unleashing merrily galloping melodies – at their best on the giddy fizz of ‘Hysterical Strength’ and the blowsy, Bowie-esque swagger of ‘Dilettante’ – and the album’s occasional emotional heaviness, deftly expressed with a lightness of touch, is further leavened by these flashes of sparkling musicality. Strange Mercy is a warm and welcome return from an increasingly impressive artist.

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