My current celebrity lady crush, Annie Clark, is back with a new St. Vincent album titled Strange Mercy. I always understood St. Vincent to be a pixie-ish waif with a great voice and tender, graceful pop songs. That is until I saw her on Austin City Limits with her full band just tear the ass of it – changing seemingly mellow numbers into guitar-infused rock. Live, her dainty songs were supercharged with energy and sprinkles of true “axe-work” handled competently by Annie herself.
Strange Mercy highlights some of her live strengths, making great use of charging beats and generous dabs of grinding guitar. The first two tracks, especially “Cruel,” capture the best of what St. Vincent has to offer. Cathartic lyrics housed in elegant and soaring pop and brought down to earth with the chunkiness of electric guitar.
This album is a little more organic in its roots compared to her laptop-composed debut and layered, dreamy follow-up, Actor. Each of the songs now seems to harness the elaborate arrangements of the earlier recordings while embracing a firm rock core. “Cheerleader” sees Annie being painfully honest about the roles she’s played in relationships – both personal and public. Her voice climbs over a quiet synth drone and light electronic percussion until the chorus blasts with big guitar sound supported by louder synthesizer chords and pounding drums as she sings, “I – I – I Don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.” It feels if Clark is “putting her foot down” both personally and musically.
Even with a slightly more stripped down approach and the open embrace of traditional rock mechanisms, tracks like the elegant and somber “Champagne Year,” “Strange Mercy” and “Surgeon” are rooted in elaborately arranged electronica. The little funk outro on “Surgeon” sounds as if Prince just casually dropped by the studio during the recording. “Neutered Fruit” is the culmination of where St. Vincent was and where she is headed. It takes a bit of everything from the tenderness of her lyrics and the beauty of her voice marrying them with fancy composition tethered by heavier rock elements.
Strange Mercy is a bold and progressive compilation of music from a gifted artist. Clark’s integration of the nuances that make her live show so good bolsters the record by displaying her prowess and giving the songs a more visceral punch, propelling Mercy beyond her previous work. She has moved from rising Lilith Fair talent pool to formidable rock contender with this album as it combines all the best elements of what she’s done and strengthening it with a gritty edge.
Strange Mercy is released today via 4AD.