St. Vincent & Mercy So “Strange”

Courtesy of Beggars Group/4AD

Annie Clark, better known under nom d’instrument St. Vincent, has been practically everywhere in the indie rock scene. She’s toured with Grizzly Bear, Death Cab for Cutie, Xiu Xiu and Sufjan Stevens, to name a few; she’s also sessioned with Andrew Bird, collaborated with Bon Iver and had one of her first tours as part of the Polyphonic Spree.

What amazes this writer is how long it’s taken Clark to wander into the spotlight, given all of the big-name acts she’s associated with. It took her until the release of her second LP, “Actor,” to really vault into relative fame. Now, with “Strange Mercy,” Clark elaborates on an offbeat complexity that has garnished her music from the beginning.

As a singer, Clark is certainly capable of delivering lyrics sweetly. For whatever reason, though, she chooses to juxtapose her dulcet vocals with somewhat unnervingly harsh rhythms and beats, sometimes bordering the line between upbeat and sinister and other times crossing irreverently into a spiky barrage of discordant sound. The result of this unorthodox combination is interesting, if a bit off-putting: sweet but sharp, like simultaneously chewing on bubble gum and hot tar.

“Strange Mercy” celebrates this odd tone, going farther than previous albums to create an atmosphere not unlike the feeling one gets waking from a nightmare — frighteningly trapped in the inability to run or pick oneself up. The second song on the album, “Cruel,” combines upbeat electronic riffs with Clark’s unaffected, almost detached singing. The song defies the picturesque by contrasting faded, dragging backup vocals reminiscent of an old ballad with strong beats and a prominent electric melody.

Coming to a peak with a wonderfully sloppy distorted guitar solo, it is apparent with this, along with a number of other songs on the record, that Clark takes her greatest inspiration from letting harsh contrast flush out societal idiosyncrasies. As a whole album, “Strange Mercy” seems to be lashing back in some way, taking the idealistic coin before turning it to expose compromise in originality and artistic sacrifice.

With this message, Clark’s music becomes instantly more understandable, and it becomes clear that Clark uses her voice and the idea of a sweet melody turned sour to shed light on a rough, pessimistic view of the world. In this way, her music almost denounces normalcy as a temporary, cheap mask for the grating realities of life. To this effect, the chorus in “Cheerleader” delivers a broken down, slow refrain to accentuate its airy verse. At its end, the refrain changes, alternating between “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more” and a much grittier “I don’t wanna be a dirt eater no more.”

Though much of “Strange Mercy” represents this disparity, the album isn’t all rainy sunshine. At times, Clark chooses to completely forgo the idealistic and go straight for heavy experimental tunes. “Northern Lights” is all distorted guitar and angry, spiteful singing. Towards the end of the song, Clark lets the jam fall into a heap of modified sounds and electric dissonance, which is characteristic of her music; it’s almost an evolved form of her earlier discordance on tunes like “Paris is Burning” off 2007’s “Marry Me.”

The slower tracks on the album offer a somewhat peaceful respite from Clark’s darker side. “Champagne Year,” the eighth track, is so light that it almost whispers its way into the album, describing and almost feeling like the very last moment of the year, a heightened sense of retrospect at a paused moment in time before a celebrated new beginning.

Bridging the gap between a few of the different sentimentalities on the album, the title track “Strange Mercy” is a heartbreakingly attuned ballad about suffering children in some ambiguous capacity, with lyrics like “I’ll be with you lost boys / Sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you,” and “If I ever find the dirty policeman who roughed you up / No, I don’t know.” Though imbued with an emotional pain so genuine that it almost becomes physical, it is Clark’s ability to provoke such empathy that makes this song so agonizingly addictive.

Although St. Vincent does deliver some gems with “Strange Mercy,” the album isn’t without its faults. “Hysterical Strength,” the second-to-last song on the album, seems haphazardly thrown in. The album recovers brilliantly with its last song, “Year of the Tiger,” but listening to the record as a whole doesn’t quite have the effect that “Actor” and “Marry Me” had. While there aren’t many tracks on the album that stand out as complete oversights, the few truly great songs on the record beg for more than what “Strange Mercy” provides.

That said, Clark still seems to be figuring out her stride, breaking apart from the E-ticket attractions she’s been associated with so often. Thus, while “Strange Mercy” is by no means the perfectly realized form of St. Vincent that fans may have dreamed this album could be, it is practically brimming with promise of an evolving musical anatomy.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars