Read any review of St. Vincent’s latest record Strange Mercy and you’ll be met with numerous references to “contrast”, uniformly followed by reams of lofty praise for what is indeed a startlingly impressive piece of work. These contrasts are the very same already explored to some extent on St. Vincent’s preceding album of 2009, Actor. On that record, Annie Clark (the sole musician behind the St. Vincent moniker) had played the sweet against the sour with striking dexterity; moments of placidity, carried by sugary vocals and orchestral arrangements, were laced with unsettling and deeply evocative lyrics alluding to occasionally erotic scenes of violence and exploding into stormy outbursts of guitar noise without warning.
A similar game is being played here on Strange Mercy but there have been significant developments in Clark’s sound over the two year period since her last record. Paring down the expansive, orchestral palette of Actor – which too often spilt over into gratuitous levels of sentimentality – to a restrained set up consisting mostly of guitars, synths and drums, Strange Mercy has a refreshingly raw, skeletal construction. In the absence of such elaborate arrangements to hide behind, one gets the impression that Clark has consciously upped her songwriting game with this album and at the foundation of each track there lies a precisely defined structure. Throughout Strange Mercy, Clark wilfully eschews any clichéd approaches to composition; the upbeat lead single ‘Cruel’ punctuates its propulsive sections of pop vocal melodies and jumpy guitar riffs with curiously meandering passages of abstract vocals and strings, keeping the track from settling into an easy pattern, and by the end of ‘Surgeon’, one of the album’s many highlights, the song has descended into an instrumental jam reminiscent of Pink Floyd at their most psychedelic.
As on Actor, the primary source of conflict here is provided by dark, jagged guitars pitted against the purity of Clark’s vocals. More so than before, there is a sense on Strange Mercy that the existence of either side of St. Vincent’s split persona is inextricably linked to the other – the noisy assault of Clark’s guitars playing the yin to her vocals’ yang. The impact of the poised beauty of her voice would be significantly reduced were it not constantly buffeted by the album’s icy soundscapes and the clinging, seedy atmospheres evoked by her immersive lyrics would carry considerably less substance were they delivered by a voice devoid of Clark’s innocence.
As this intoxicating record unfolds, yet deeper levels of complexity reveal themselves. Where her previous works have tended to feel somewhat clinical, Strange Mercy displays an unprecedented level of personal depth to Clark’s songwriting. Whether meditating on the loss of youth on ‘Champagne Year’ – “I make a living telling people what they want to hear/It’s not a killing but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear” – or addressing her “little one” on the title track, the scenes that Annie Clark paints on this album are firmly rooted in the real world. The record’s emotional core, and towering centrepiece, is undoubtedly ‘Strange Mercy’. Opening with a passage of sublime beauty as the wandering, malleable vocal melody is gently pushed along by the metronomic percussion – another example of Clark’s deft use of contrasting musical elements – the track soon builds to a rush of drums and crunching guitars, with Clark’s vocals fleetingly betraying a concealed anger as she sings: “If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up/No I, I don’t know what”. The experience of listening to this track, and Strange Mercy as a whole, is as exhausting as it is utterly spellbinding. This record deserves to be thoughtfully analysed – its lyrics dissected, its structure scrutinised – but when Strange Mercy hits such heights as on its dramatic title track all one can do is sit back and admire.