St. Vincent’s "Strange Mercy"

St. Vincent’s "Strange Mercy"

  • Article by: Raleigh McCool
  • Posted: 09/20/2011

St. Vincent is trying to make us very, very confused. What do we do with the sweet-voiced, soft-eyed Texan with the sharp tongue and dirty guitar riffs? And what do we do with her new album, Strange Mercy? I don’t even think she knows.

St. Vincent, the iconic-sounding stage name of 28 year-old Annie Clark, is a contradiction. For starters, the original St. Vincent, a Spanish martyr, was a man. (She actually takes her name from an old hospital in Greenwich Village.) At times, her voice is adorable and delicate, like a bird or a child. Other times her cry is so unbearably fierce, so womanly, that it pins you to your seat. Clark is very obviously still trying to make sense of things, and she doesn’t want us to get too comfortable either.

The Berklee-trained artist shows command of her classical training – the music so precise, so varied – while unleashing loud, blistering riffs from the guitar perched innocently at her chest. The balance between Clark’s fragile voice and Strange Mercy’s rough, fuzzy guitar sounds represent her frail but resolute determination to not be a girl any longer.

On “Cheerleader,” Clark elegantly laments her past of insecurity and “dirt eating.” The track almost comes off as sentimental, as if she misses her naïve days – but then she strums that guitar, so coarse and gritty, and we know that Clark could never go back.

She flirts with her past and with us on “Neutered Fruit,” wondering, over and over, “Did you ever really stare at me?” And on “Dilettante,” the most fun track to listen to, Clark reveals her desire to belong – “Invite me,” she insists. But she’s not a dirt eater anymore. Clark coyly sings, “You can’t undress me, anyway,” and ends the song by plunging into another jam session.

Clark is a woman now, insecurities be damned. “Chloe In The Afternoon,” the album’s opener, has its title swiped from a 1972 film that questions the merits of monogamy. Is there a better way to say, “I don’t need a man?”

And lucky for us, Clark still wants to have fun. On “Cruel,” the album’s first single, she sings almost gleefully about “the kids,” who going around frantically seeking attention, so “casually cruel.” (Upon first hearing this song, it demanded about 15 consecutive listens.) The song’s intro, which sounds an awful lot like something from one of Clark’s beloved Disney movies, is a contrast to how much she has matured.

Her music has grown up, too. “Hysterical Strength” is a standout, a pulsing track that ends with more of that pummeling guitar. The whole album, including this song, begs to be listened to loudly, a marked difference between Clark and others in her league. “Year of the Tiger” follows and ends the album, which just makes us want more of Clark and her funky guitar sounds.

I don’t know if we’re supposed to leave with a specific conviction about St. Vincent, and she probably likes it that way. In fact, Strange Mercy’s subliminal message is practically: “I don’t have this figured out.”

On two separate occasions, Clark mentions, rather casually, not knowing something. On “Cheerleader,” she concedes, “I don’t know what I deserve.” In the bridge of the memorable title track, “Strange Mercy,” Clark sings, “If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up …” She then starts to make a threat, but stops, as if she’s decided that it’s just not worth it – “No, I don’t know what.”

The most revealing song on the record is “Champagne Year,” and it is haunting in its honesty. Having spent most of the album acknowledging fear and insecurity and not knowing what’s going on, Clark comes to terms with her experience: “It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s the one we’ve got.” Somber guitar notes follow, and they agree – “this is the best we can do.”

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"Cruel" - St. Vincent

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