St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Nick Torsell, September 13, 2011
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
Listen: “Strange Mercy”
We just went through our last few “hot” days in Buffalo; the kind Southerners would scoff at being described as hot. So I’ve been riding out these last few bastions of perspiration in my affordable used foreign car with the windows down, St. Vincent’s new album, Strange Mercy blasting in the background.
Not many people think of Annie Clark’s music as being the kind to soundtrack road rage. When the person on the street adjacent to your car races to the stop sign, obviously changing their pace to somehow “beat you” and save five seconds on their trip back home to watch HBO’s Sunday programming, it might make more sense to you however.Strange Mercy is perfect for this kind of domestic frustration, the kind of problems that arrive out of idleness, fatigue, and anxiousness.
The recording of the album was made in a similar way, Clark setting herself in a fixed routine in Seattle, working in a studio and living by herself in a hotel room. There’s a certain type of comfort that goes with a routine like the one she describes in the latest Spin, waking up early, getting coffee, heading to work and then coming back to the fluorescent light of your room, whittling away the rest of your day with a book that comes across in her music. She challenges this same comfort frequently on the album with pitch shifted vocals menacingly synching with Clark’s whispered lead. The first single “Surgeon” is the most straightforwardStrange Mercy track, yet still reveals a songwriting maturity that wasn’t quite put together yet on her first two albums, Actor and Marry Me. Her guitar dances (see David Byrne) in and around the corners of her voice at the chorus. Unlike past singles, “Paris Is Burning” and “Actor Out of Work”, she holds back from tying to impress us on “Surgeon”. There’s no pressure anymore because the audience knows what she can do, and we listen to her based on a name which doubles as a promise. This is St. Vincent’s new album, it will be good, and we should probably buy it.
The stand out of Strange Mercy is put together with a calm missing in her past albums. There’s still a shadow hanging over her singing voice, and especially in her guitar buzz, but Clark is now playing with a confidence missing from not just her own past work, but the past five years of indie records. The title track combines her usual dazzling guitar with tapping percussion, but she creates the unease that’s permeated her music since Marry Me through her lyrics. The spare centerpiece culminates with her sweetly vowing revenge, if that’s possible to do with any sort of seriousness.
The record may be a bit front-loaded, “Cruel” at the number two spot is a fun horror show turn through suburbia, while “Cheerleader”, which follows, will be the biggest festival shout-along, but Strange Mercy is a cohesive unit. It’s put together to withstand the most unpredictable Sunday afternoon drivers.