The legacy of St. Vincent will be forever fraught with contradiction. This is a good thing. In fact, this is integral to the understanding of what makes St. Vincent such a fascinating artist. Beautiful but ugly, gentle but menacing, everything Annie Clark has done over the past four years has been exhilarating because it has taken images of splendor and perverted them, crippled them, until they’re just barely recognizable. Think of Dren from Splice. What is that shit? A bird, a human, an artist, a fallacy? Why does it exist and why am I so attracted to it?
Strange Mercy is St. Vincent’s best album simply because it takes the dialectics incumbent in Clark’s music to the highest point that can be achieved. The album’s cover shows a face, presumably hers, obscured by latex Goat’s Head Soup style, the first time that an album of Clark’s hasn’t directly displayed her attractive countenance. Throughout the album, skid marks of discordant guitar tones undercut angelic choirs, electronics snicker at Clark’s voice as it tries to continue the recital. No pleasant melody goes unpunished on Strange Mercy, and it’s fun to see how this irreverent conflict plays out. That the results are some fantastic songs is an added bonus.
Lyrically, Clark is just as incongruous. Her voice is delicate, giving the impression of frailty and vulnerability, traits that are often reflected in her lyrics. The best example of this is on the title track, the climax of which sets the stage for Clark to assert her dominance. “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up,” she asserts. “I, I don’t know what.” It’s a sad admission, but one unsurprising given the tracks that precede it. “I spent the summer on my back,” she sings submissively on “Surgeon.” Clark largely portrays herself as a victim in the foibles that populate Strange Mercy. She’s dragged along either by the characters in her story or the music, itself.
But, then again, she isn’t. One of Strange Mercy’s highlights is final track “Year of the Tiger,” in which Clark plays a guileless banker looking to make a quick buck. “Italian shoes / Like these rubes know the difference,” she scoffs, drawing up middle class ire for Wall Street but humanizing her foil to something just short of likeable. In “Cheerleader,” Clark confronts an abusive lover, and the music thumps along with her as she stutters, as if revving an engine. Then, the timid track blooms in a catharsis of hazy electronics as Clark proclaims, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.” In these and many other moments of Strange Mercy, Clark is a force to be reckoned with. Armed with an axe-full of scuzzy solos, she cannot be ignored… except of course when she is at other points in the album.
Unsurprisingly, the music also can’t help but conflict with itself. Clark unleashes a corrosive guitar solo halfway through first single “Cruel” and “Neutered Fruit” builds with a snare drum run juxtaposed with eerie choir vocals. Strange Mercy is unequivocally successful in its goal to never make the listener too comfortable. But its most rewarding moment is when all the music falls away and Clark’s power standing is arbitrary. “Champaign Year,” the album’s focal point, floats on ambience as Clark delivers her best lyrical performance to date. “I make a living telling people what they want to hear,” she sings with a vocal melody reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” “It’s not a killing, but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear.” Clark’s pessimism is daunting, but, for three and a half minutes, you feel like you’re listening to the real her. Then again, a case can be made that the “real” Annie Clark reveals itself quite fantastically on the album’s other ten tracks.