Here at Ranting About Music, I haven’t talked about “strange” music for awhile.
Cue St. Vincent (stage name for singer/multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark)’s third album Strange Mercy. St. Vincent’s music is feels like an on-going experiment for Clark; debut Marry Me was off kilter indie pop while follow-up Actor had a darker tinge and a more ornate sound. Continuing that experimentation, Strange Mercy tests how much Clark can do in a tradition rock band set up, albeit with the occasional eerie synth or horn.
The set up might be traditional, but the music is anything but. St. Vincent’s fractured art-rock is alive and well on Strange Mercy. Starter “Chloe in the Afternoon” is a great example of this; the drums don’t keep a beat as much as they stagger around it, while a dirty guitar riff dances around it. The juxtaposition between the noisy, abrasive background music and Clark’s hypnotic, breathy vocals is enticing both here and throughout the album as a whole; songs can snarl one moment and swoon the next. Both beauty and beast are enveloped in ethereal synths and organs, such as on “Cruel”.
“Cruel” exemplifies St. Vincent’s stitched together songcraft. The song’s loaded with instruments that come in and out between orchestrated verses and obscenely catchy choruses. It’s the kind of idea that shouldn’t work, but ends up sounding like a smash hit for radio stations that don’t exist. Likewise, “Northern Lights” could once upon a time have been a traditional indie rock song. The production on Strange Mercy gives these tunes teeth and an organic atmosphere depending on if the song is beauty or beast.
For an album that’s as experimental and willfully weird as this, very little on Strange Mercy doesn’t work. Songs that build up to starry climaxes? Yeah, there’s “Neutered Star” for that. Spacey slowburner? “Dilettante” deftly does it. Even the ballad “Champagne Year” feels satisfying despite never venturing far from where it starts.
And I haven’t even gotten to the best tracks on the record. “Surgeon” gives the album an early peak with it’s plaintive chant of “let’s find a surgeon, come up me open” and a slippery guitar line made even more entrancing with the song’s instrumental outro. There’s also the title track, which starts fairly conventionally before becoming a guitar workout for Clark. Clark’s playing, by the way, is a large part of why the album succeeds. It’s not very complex playing, but it’s a mix of traditional chords and riffs with more obtuse melodies and jarring chord progressions (see: “Cheerleader”).
The best way to describe Strange Mercy‘s lyrics is by looking at the cover. Clark has a lot to say, but most of it is hidden behind obscure references and poetic language. There are plenty of off-hand references to America (“Oh America, can I owe you one?”, “I’ve seen America with no clothes”), turns of phrases, and references to darker times, but nothing clear or distinct.
Strange Mercy is that rare type of album that you keep coming back to because it’s kind of fascinating, but you don’t know how to fully describe it. Yes, Clark has a knack for making songs conventionally wrong in just the right ways, yes, the album is incredibly well put together, and yes, at times it is very affecting. For the first few listens, Strange Mercy doesn’t do much to differentiate itself, but once it does, there’s a wonderful album to be found. Four and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: One of the indie highlights of the year, 4.5/5