It can be said that Annie Clark is perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in contemporary rock. There are those who think that Clark’s work under her St. Vincent moniker, full of unusual and ambitious arrangements that take unexpected turns on every note, is brilliant. Then there are those who find her instrumental and vocal quirks just plain weird and her violin- and effects-laden arrangements too ambitious for her own good. Some may say that the music of St. Vincent is an acquired taste. But Clark’s latest release as St. Vincent, Strange Mercy, will easily convert anyone who had their doubts. The record is her most straightforward, honest and accessible work to date, but it’s also, ironically, her most complex. Strange Mercy is the work of a musician that has truly come into her own; Clark exhibits a clear mastery of her electric guitar and her vocals demonstrate a range not heard on her previous albums, 2007’s Marry Me and 2009’s Actor. Simply put, Strange Mercy is a stunning piece of work that solidifies Clark as one of the most talented and unabashed musicians of our time.
On Strange Mercy, Clark puts us under her spell right from the get-go. On each song, she demonstrates her virtuosity on electric guitar and her equally genius knack for layering her sweet vocals over harsh, almost violent instrumentation. On the eerie opener “Chloe In the Afternoon,” Clark gasps for air on each note, effectively demonstrating the title character’s suffocation. This is all on top of a creepy synth effect and sporadic explosions of Clark’s guitar distortion that cut through the atmospheric synth drone like a knife. It is this juxtaposition of Clark’s smoky voice, ambient overtones and almost vicious outbursts of electric guitar that makes Strange Mercy so brilliant.
What is especially intriguing about Clark’s guitar playing is the degree to which she disfigures the sound of perhaps the most universal instrument in the history of rock music. What we’re hearing is not any old electric guitar; it’s an electric guitar as interpreted by Clark. On “Northern Lights,” the sound of her guitar builds up throughout the song and finally culminates in a spastic outburst that sounds more like a broken synthesizer than a guitar. Clark lures the “best, finest surgeon” to save her from a loveless relationship on “Surgeon,” which concludes with guitar distortion that resembles a teakettle about to erupt. Clark effortlessly constructs a story with her instrument and voice, but still cleverly lets us envision our own versions. This cinematic quality of Clark’s playing ability makes Strange Mercy as approachable as it is intricate.
Not only are Clark’s playing and arrangements a vast and welcome change from her previous work, but her lyrics are also her most personal to date. Her lyrics manage to be blunt and discrete at the same time, allowing us to feel her pain while also wondering what happened to her to make her so pissed off. On standout track “Cheerleader,” the first verse is so innocent and simple that the pulverizing chorus comes out of nowhere. Clark declares, “I-I-I-I-I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more,” as if she’s pounding her fists against a wall with each “I.” Likewise, Clark takes on the role of protective mother on the title track, on which she claims, “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up/No I don’t know what”; we can almost hear her blood boiling. On lead single “Cruel,” easily one of the best songs of the year, Clark takes on the objectification of women: “They could take or leave you/So they took you/And they left you/How could they be casually cruel?” That Clark sings these lyrics in protest of society’s standards for women over a catchy disco beat makes “Cruel” all the more remarkable.
Strange Mercy is a rare treat that manages to be catchy and fun, while also the work of a skilled songwriter and composer. For a musician with only three albums under her belt over the course of four years. Clark proves she is way ahead of her time with this unforgettable record. As for those of you who had your doubts about Clark’s legitimacy as a rock virtuoso, take a chance on Strange Mercy; she just might surprise you.