The star of St. Vincent continues to rise. Graduated from the schools of Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, Annie Clark has quickly established herself under that holy moniker as her own force of nature. On her two records so far, she’s crafted delicate and raw songs about people that have it all together on the outside but are on the verge of breaking down on the inside. The title of her last record, “Actor”, was largely an allusion to the roles we play to please others in spite of our own predilections. Of course her debut album, “Marry Me”, was a reference to the cult classic TV show “Arrested Development”, so it’s also quite clear that Ms. Clark is not without a sense of humor. And whether you’ve only heard her on record or seen her live, few can argue that singing and songwriting are only a small part of her immense talents. To put it a different way: she can shred. Big time. Even the songs that sound intense on record take on an entirely new life when performed on stage. They become more jagged, formless and gut-wrenchingly intense. Earlier this year, she blew a lot of people away by covering “Bad Penny/Kerosene” by Steve Albini’s seminal 90s band Big Black. Nearly equal parts punk rager and heavy metal, Clark tackled that storm head-on and came out the other side smelling of roses and adoration. With such heaps of praise consistently lavished upon St. Vincent, it was only a matter of time before enough people caught on and her popularity shot through the roof. Now on the precipice of it all, the phrase “make or break” could well be applied to the third St. Vincent record “Strange Mercy”. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the record though is in spite of what would otherwise be mounting pressure, Clark appears to ignore everything and everyone by embracing her own pathological whims, no matter how off-putting they might otherwise be.
That’s not to say “Strange Mercy” is all that…strange, though it is far less endearing and easy to digest compared to her previous efforts. In many ways, that’s a good thing – the best artists continue to challenge themselves and evolve, and that typically means kicking normal song structures and simplistic instrumentation to the curb. Case in point, it’s fascinating how much Clark’s fragile upper register at the start of opening cut “Chloe in the Afternoon” resembles Bjork’s. The vocal similarities don’t necessarily hold up beyond those first few lines, but the composition of the track also starts to feel like something Bjork would be proud of. The buzzsaw electric guitar slices through just about everything save for the rhythmic march of the snare drum that very much feels electronica/drum machine-inspired. By the time things wrap up, the song has broken down like a computer gone haywire with a virus. Clark’s vocals drown in a digital bath, obscured to the point where you can’t understand a word but can still make out the melody. Building to a frenzy is nothing new for a St. Vincent song, but there’s something inherently bigger, weirder and darker here than what we’re accustomed to. That carries over to most of the rest of the record.
What we’re essentially seeing on “Strange Mercy” is a more exposed Annie Clark than ever before. Previously, such dark tales were buried beneath the surface revelations. They were the musings of a deeply conflicted person admitting that, like the rest of us, sometimes it’s okay to have fits of rage. You’re almost inhuman if you can’t express such feelings on occasion. The new record strips away the conflict to show human beings much more in touch with their emotions. “Best, finest surgeon, come cut me open,” she sings, quoting Marilyn Monroe on “Surgeon”. The song itself is a bit of a lone wolf on a record such as this, relaxed and more passive in both words and melody. Unlike so many of the other characters on “Strange Mercy”, here is one that is holding everything inside emotionally and resorts to begging somebody else, a proverbial surgeon, to extract those emotions and bring them to the surface. It comes from a place of yearning to belong, and the very finely picked guitar work is handled with scalpel-like precision to go along with it. We’re never really sure if that surgeon finally comes along, but the synth-fueled instrumental breakdown that concludes the song takes things to a rather uncomfortable yet intricate level that isn’t too far removed from the terror many of us experience when we know somebody is about to slice into our skin with a blade.
In addition to her more plainspoken and confrontational mannerisms in the lyrics, Clark allows her guitar to do a lot more “talking” as well. Whereas many of the melodies on “Actor” were buttressed with dynamic orchestral-like arrangements that included violins and cellos and flute, heavy electrics in both guitar and synth form get plenty raw and show off Clark’s skills that much more. The difference in the song “Your Lips Are Red” from the first St. Vincent album on record versus in a live setting have become like night and day, the latter version often escalating to a 7+ minute guitar freak out that’s the auditory equivalent of bloodlust. While a bunch of the songs on “Strange Mercy” could well take on a similar life when performed, many of them already capture such ferocity on record that you wonder what could be added on stage. On the opposite side of that coin, not every track is an intense, guitar-heavy ripper. Variety is the spice of life, which is why the second half of the record goes down in a smoother and slower fashion than the first. That sort of more subdued yet beautiful balance is essential on a record such as this, and it’s handled with grace and aplomb. “Neutered Fruit” sounds like it’s had its balls clipped at first before it grows a pair towards the end, and while a “Champagne Year” is normally cause for celebration, it’s clear from the mellow tone of the track that Clark is in no mood to have a party. Her somber The first third of “Dilettante” holds pretty static, pairing Clark’s sweet vocals with a very simple and slow drum beat so sparse she might as well have done it a capella. Horns and guitars eventually pick up the slack and bring the track to a rousing conclusion. The buzzing guitars return again for one last appearance via the closing track “Year of the Tiger”, which coincidentally is also the only song on the album to have light brushes with an acoustic guitar as well. The record more plods to the finish line rather than dashes across it, but the sentiments of fear and paranoia that permeate the lyrics don’t particularly call for something peppy or lighter.
Perhaps the lone disappointment with a record like “Strange Mercy” comes at the hands of commercial viability. “Cruel” is the first single, but as bouncy and catchy as it may be, it defies traditional song structures. There’s just something about it that lacks the pure magic of a “Actor Out of Work” or “Paris Is Burning”. No matter though, for the sheer charm of it will win enough people over to keep some of the most casual St. Vincent fans interested. Almost equally great single fodder is “Northern Lights”, driven forwards by a great pace and strong guitar parts, but tempered by an only moderately successful hook and an odd squelching synth solo during the bridge to keep you on your toes. Annie Clark seems to like doing that – keeping us on our toes. It’s all about continued evolution, and through three records now she has been able to do whatever it takes to avoid repeating herself while retaining the core ideas and skills that made her such a dynamo in the first place. In the particular case of “Strange Mercy”, it’s wonderful to hear her kick a lot of the prettier elements from “Actor” to the curb in order to focus much more intently on her immense guitar skills and more directly on the real world issues that challenge her cast of characters. And while synths seem to be one of the most popular instruments in indie rock these days, Clark isn’t using them to recreate a specific era of music but instead as a pure supplement to her timeless rock songs. She continues to do things her own way in spite of otherwise mounting pressure to trade it all in for massive commercial success and popularity. They certainly don’t make many rock stars like that anymore.