Annie Clark, the renaissance woman also known as St. Vincent, seems to have it all: a natural talent bolstered by solid training (Berklee College of Music), an increasingly robust career boosted by some of the best colleagues one could possibly have (Clark has worked with Sufjan Stevens, Beck, Glenn Branca and Amanda Palmer, to name just a few) and a quietly pronounced but approachable sensibility that, like her body of work, is a monolith of old influences and new arrangements.
Clark had an uneasy “Year of the Tiger”. Elegantly tight-lipped with the press about the specific causes of what she calls “situational depression” in 2010, Clark secluded herself in Seattle with her guitar, letting the writing for Strange Mercy do all of the talking for her. This workflow is in stark contrast to her sophomore album, 2009’s Actor. Clark wrote that record almost entirely on the computer, which may have lent to the parts of it being overwrought. After leaving Seattle, she returned to her hometown of Dallas to record Strange Mercy with a new band and longtime producer Chris Congleton (who has also worked with Modest Mouse and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah).
The choice to build Strange Mercy from the bottom up instead of editing the album from the top down has paid off. The LP plays Clark’s primary strength as an exemplary guitarist, unlike any of her prior releases, and each track comes across as more multidimensional, layered and demanding of repeat listens than those from the past. Clark’s mad guitar skills, shown most brilliantly in her one-off cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” (which does not appear on Strange Mercy), propel the record in places like the effortless runs on the stealthy epic “Northern Lights” and the sadistic roleplay of her guitar on album opener “Chloe In The Afternoon”. Even more heavily produced tracks such as the Abba-esque single “Cruel” and the infectious “Hysterical Strength” would not work without Clark’s guitar. And while Clark’s makes her decades-in-the-making skill look easy, Congleton has shown growth by ensuring the combination of all elements of the album – at all levels – occur as greater than the sum of its parts compared to the small imbalances of albums past.
The elemental nature of Strange Mercy lends to live performance as dressed down or dressed up as needed, meaning this album will be unfolding before our eyes for months to come in promotion and tour. Several versions of the singles “Surgeon” and “Cruel” already proliferate, each bringing something new to the table and eliciting a natural soft sell to get out and see St. Vincent live (and salivate for her forthcoming collaboration with David Byrne). This curiosity for the live version is piqued most especially on more production-heavy standout tracks like “Northern Lights” and “Hysterical Strength” and emotionally direct tracks like the confessionals “Cheerleader” and “Champagne Year”.
If there’s a weakness to the album, it’s the lack of more accessible and inviting tracks like “Cruel”. This is a rather nit-picky criticism, however, considering the artistry exhibited and that both Clark and Congleton have shrewdly demonstrated that they’ve listened to the feedback given to past releases. It just seems a shame that there’s not more alternapop hooks to reel in the uninitiated, because there’s much to love for all types of listeners. 2007’s personality-driven Marry Me and the production-forward Actor have been rounded out by Strange Mercy’s maturity, honesty and skill to make a solid, progressive and enviable career trilogy that showcases Annie Clark’s talent, innovations and development as an all-around artist.
ST. VINCENT- KEROSENE (Big Black Cover)