St. Vincent : Strange Mercy
In St. Vincent's latest release Strange Mercy, the views of her past two albums have crystallised into a coherent world view - a world of pop sensibilities with sinister and strange undertones. St. Vincent aka Annie Clark has previously served as a backing vocalist for the the cultish Polyphonic Spree and religious grand folk prodigy Sufjan Stevens. This album gives nods to both the synth-based grand expressions of sentiment from the Spree and the later majestic electronica-tinged folk arrangements of Stevens, as well as drawing from an entirely diverse catalogue of influences.
Clark is an obvious multi-instrumentalist, dipping her toe into a wide variety of sounds, never fully committing to one, yet still turning out a cohesive, meticulous, and musically layered collection of songs.
The opening track Chloe In The Afternoon echoes Dirty Projector vocals and is set to an almost militant drum beat paired with a shimmering, futuristic synth layer that drops in the chorus like your stomach when you wake up ten minutes after work has started.
Cruel swells and kicks with an inventive guitar arrangement that showcases her skills with ease, as she asks "bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you?" It's not the only time on the album that her lyrical content touches on social standards for women, and her lyrics hold more weight for it. Sections of the song sound like a sitcom theme from the '50s, before swelling almost uncomfortably and finally flourishing into a web of head-nodding pop.
Cheerleader sounds like a quasi-feminist anthem, with Clark quietly claiming "I've had good times with some bad guys" and "I've played dumb when I knew better" before declaring each chorus, with a pounding repetitive certainty, "I don't want to be a cheerleader no more". Surgeon is a dreamy exploration of paralysing depression with defeatist undertones and a flow that abandons rigid structure. There's an almost childish breakdown in the middle of the song, which carelessly ramps up in speed, again leaving the listener slightly ill at ease.
The title track strips back the freaky factor and lets Clark's voice tell the tale of a mother pining for a loved one in jail, set to a slow boat-rocking beat and expertly executed guitar and harp accompaniments. "If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up, no I don't know what" are, for me, the stand out lyrics on the album, not for their content but in their passionate and trembling emotional delivery.
The slow-burning last few tracks of the album slow the pop pace down a little. Dilletante delicately questions an estranged husband, whileHysterical Strength expands and contracts to a head-nodding gallop of a beat, before finally coming up triumphant. The closing track Year Of The Tiger denounces capitalism questioning in an almost patronising way "Oh America, can I owe you one?"
Despite its frequent chops, changes and surprises, this is a pop album and its polished honesty lends it to an easy first listen. It is only on repeat listens that the more sinister St. Vincent is revealed. The common use of first names (Chloe, Elijah), menacing invitations ("come cut me open"), second person (almost always addressing "you") uneasy swelling synths, and and incessant questioning and accusing tone makes this album feel private and personal, like peeking through the shades into the lives of various, vulnerable characters.
St. Vincent has left behind all traces of her past as a backing vocalist. This is a woman with her own voice, and she is using it fiercely. This aptly titled release is strange and beautiful, and seems to be possessed with a life of its own.
Best Track: Cruel
If You Like This, You'll Like These: Bitte Orca DIRTY PROJECTORS, Real Life JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN, Hounds Of Love KATE BUSH
In A Word: Extraordinary