Under Review: St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

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When most guitarists launch into their solos, they’ll generally end up with fingers skittering around the highest notes on the neck. While that technique has become a nearly ubiquitous style, there are a select few musicians who prefer exploring the lower-numbered frets. Annie Clark, the main creative force behind St. Vincent, is one such guitarist. Her shredding derives its unnerving lopes from low-octave growls and microtonal sways, giving her songs a constant underpinning of dread and unease. On Strange Mercy, Clark’s third album, she compliments her distinctive instrumental style with some of her most personal lyrics to date, not to mention a few of her strongest melodic ideas.

Steeped in art of all kinds, Clark’s music draws inspiration from films, books, journals and, of course, the life of a working musician. Strange Mercy begins with “Chloe In The Afternoon,” a reference to Eric Rohmer’s 1972 film of the same name (in its North American translation, anyway). Where Clark’s lyrics are obscured by an unusual vocal delivery, her lurching guitar lines are crystal clear. Rhythm plays an especially strong role in “Cheerleader,” where each “I” in the chorus is accompanied by a menacing thump that leaves the listener thinking, ‘Alright, if you don’t want to be a cheerleader, no one’s forcing you. Just don’t hurt me.’ Another early highlight, “Cruel,” echoes the handful of straightforward pop moments from Clark’s previous albums, Marry Me and Actor.

Strange Mercy was written and recorded by Clark in Seattle during a self-imposed technology drought. As a result, the arrangements are less overwhelming than on Actor, and the shifts from song to song are more fluid. The jazzy-yet-thematically creepy “Dilettante” follows the existential “Champagne Year” with a similarly ambiguous morality. Also in “Champagne Year,” Clark delivers the album’s most potent and poignant lyric: “I’ll make a living telling people what they want to hear/It’s not a killing, but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear.” That implication of dissatisfaction and creative resignation is a little disheartening, especially considering that Strange Mercy is Clark’s finest record to date. In many ways, though, that sentiment more strongly shows off Clark’s restless resolve and spirit. It’s that same fight that drives the album’s title track, in which a comforting lullaby turns into a declaration of revenge. Clark knows all too well how to play with contrasts, and Strange Mercy showcases her immense creativity in a truly inspiring way.

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~ by E. on September 15, 2011.

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