“It’s a champagne year, full of sober months”, declares Annie Clark A.K.A. St. Vincent on mid-album highlight Northern Lights; a summation that might easily be applied to this attractive set of experimental pop songs which, when you dig a little deeper, is found to be harbouring a darkly brooding core.
Take the track Surgeon for example. If you’re not careful, you’ll be all too easily allured by the playful, fluttering electronics dancing around the dainty vocals, that you’ll completely miss what she’s actually saying. Don’t worry though, it’s only sweet nothings like “I spent the summer on my back, another attack” and “best, finest surgeon, come cut me open”. In fact, there’s so much going on musically all around you as the track plays out that you won’t even notice these lyrics until the 3rd or 4th listen, at which point you’ll suddenly recoil from it like from a friendly new acquaintance who has just brought up his harmless obsession with butcher knives. Oh yes, that’s this album for you: a champagne experience, full of sobering moments.
This is Annie Clark’s 3rd album in 5 years as St. Vincent, since bidding adieu to that amorphous assemblage of artists, The Polyphonic Spree. Free from the smothering effect of a band with more members than hit songs, nowadays her’s are the only two feet standing on stage (bar her backing band of course) and boy, is she revelling in the spotlight.
Strange Mercy is in many ways an improvement on her already excellent second LP Actor, taking what was great about that album – mainly the juxtaposition between loud, rowdy eccentricity and softly sung melodies – and honing this mixture into a potently spiked cocktail of delights.
Chloe In The Afternoon is a weird kick-start to proceedings, sounding like she got Bjork in to lend her warbled vocal stylings to the intro, before the song trudges its way through a grungy guitar swamp and ends up being consumed by a teeming plague of locusts… well, that’s what I’m hearing anyway.
The fun really begins with the second track, Cruel. For me this song strikes that perfect balance between being utterly deranged and yet wholly accessible. After fairy-tale strings welcome us in, a forceful militant beat and Clark’s sumptuous singing take over, leading us up to this marvellously broken-down, grubbily distorted guitar melody, which has me in its thrall still, 10 or so listens down the line. I simply can’t get it out of my head. This one guitar lead has taken over my life. Everywhere I go it comes chirruping out of my face, there’s no way to stop it. And to be honest, I’ve given up trying.
The album marries bold, abrasive sounds with sweet melody to magnificent effect throughout. Northern Lights is the most startling instance of this. It actually starts out sounding like a long-lost Rilo Kiley track, with its acoustic downstrokes and Clark adopting a very Jenny Lewis-esque singing style. But then the squishy electric guitar melody plants itself on top and we’re launched full-on into St. Vincent territory. The song builds impressively, with its persistent beat and this escalating ominous buzzing that engulfs the mix, gathering momentum through each manic interlude until we reach the wild rushing ejaculation of electronics at 2 mins 35 that the song’s been propelling us towards all along. It really is awesome stuff, both beautiful and brutal in equal measure.
There’s a lot to take in on Strange Mercy, with various layers and subtleties to each track that require repeat listens to fully appreciate. But I have no problem with this when the album presents such an instantly engaging and, despite its sombre heart, outwardly fun visage.
And the stripped back, melancholic moments can be just as affecting as the loud and unruly ones. The title track is a sympathecally sung, incredibly moving song hell-bent on revenge and Cheerleader, although deceptive in its softly delivered verses, is uncompromising in its feministic frankness, as Clark claims she has “seen America with no clothes on” and so “doesn’t wanna be a cheerleader no more”.
It seems to me that in a year when returning heavyweight females PJ Harvey and Bjork are the lead cheerleaders drawing all eyes and ears towards them, St. Vincent is the untamed talent at the back of the formation, bearing a half smile, rabid wit and cruel intentions. And, whisper it softly, her record might be the pick of this trio’s 2011 releases. Oh yes, I thank the lord for Strange Mercy.
Ch-Check It Out If You’re Partial To – pop music that is fun yet dark, catchy yet experimental, abrasive yet beautiful, harsh yet soft; her previous output as St. Vincent… less so Polyphonic Spree; Bjork; Dirty Projectors; raw, grungy guitar leads; picking out layered subtleties through multiple listens
Fantastic Track – Cruel