St. Vincent – “Cruel”
The temptation when talking about Strange Mercy, Annie Clark’s latest effort under the St. Vincent name, is to make comparisons to other artists. (Isn’t it always.) Specifically, Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors and their recent collaborator Björk come to mind. And rightfully so – Longstreth is one of a few guitarists who share an ear with Clark, and the vocals on Strange Mercy, particularly on the album’s first few tracks, keep pace with everyone’s favorite Icelandic songstress. But despite the surface similarities, St. Vincent isn’t beholden to those artists; Clark is a sparrow to Longstreth’s finch and Bjork’s swan. She spins her tics and jolts into an oddly inviting soundscape that is at once abrasive and embrasive. As an album, Strange Mercy is violently seductive.
In concert, Annie Clark is a paradoxical vision at center stage. Waifishly stunning, she looks momentarily as if a puff of air might blow her over. But once the amps buzz to life and Clark opens her mouth, she is unshakable, in commanding control of the pace and production of every noise coming from the stage. Somehow, her skittishness becomes grace. She transforms into a ferociously precise bandleader whose can rip scary-good guitar riffs, smacking you in the face while you admire her halter top.
Clark has certainly grown up over the course of her three albums. St. Vincent’s debut, Marry Me, consisted largely of songs written at the end of her teenage years – an album by someone who, in her words, “hadn’t really experienced anything.” Actor, St. Vincent’s impressive follow-up, was a grown-up return to childhood, inspired by animated films after a soul-sucking year and a half on tour. Here, on Strange Mercy, we find Clark in the aftermath of nearly three decades of life, sorting through the pieces. The singer turned 28 on the 28th of September last year, making this her “champagne year” – a concept she liked so much that she mentions in on two of the album’s eleven tracks – and she seems intent to use the opportunity as a checkpoint, figuring out just what has happened and what she wants to happen next.
Throughout Strange Mercy, Clark embraces the calamity of those 28 years, and the resulting album embodies the juxtaposition of a cute outfit and an electric guitar. Gone are the strings and woodwinds of Marry Me and Actor, for the most part replaced by controlled drums and spastic stabs that blur the line between guitar and trumpets. Her guitar effects run the gamut from pseudo-orchestral plinks to super-crunched, near-midi runs and bass-y, buzzing chunks that steamroll over drumbeats. On the title track, a lethargic beat slumps behind Clark’s airy voice; the vocal track would be stunning on its own, but a choppy drum track, enigmatic guitars, and a goofy synthesizer create a swell of foreboding, with tension adding to the theatricality of it all. This music tugs and pulls at its stitches.
But while the sonics may sometimes be colder than the St. Vincent we’re used to, Clark’s voice seems all the more intimate. The choral layers of “Neutered Fruit” draw listeners close. “Dilettante” strips the reverb for a gorgeously textured, soulful sound. “Champagne Year” sounds like it’s being sung inside your head. Still, despite the vocal intimacy, these songs never truly let you get close, always preferring to keep the listener at arm’s distance. It’s tempting to call this art-pop “accessible,” but that’s not really true. More than anything, Strange Mercy is arresting.
Like the music, Clark’s words are a mixture of chill and warmth, confronting sex with a sort of knowledgeable detachment. “I spent the summer on my back,” she sings coquettishly on “Surgeon.” Later on that same track it’s, “Best, finest surgeon, come cut me open.” She talks about the good times she’s had with bad guys on “Cheerleader,” but seems to be fed up with it all. On “Cruel,” she asks, “Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?” The album’s very cover could be seen as a touchstone for the concept of impersonal or disengaged sexuality, with Clark’s open mouth wrapped in impermeable and opaque plastic.
Along those lines is the album’s opening track, “Chloe In The Afternoon,” which takes its name from Eric Rohmer’s 1972 film Love In The Afternoon. In the film, a woman named Chloe meets, befriends, and then eventually tries to seduce a married man named Frederic, who struggles to understand his emotions for the two women in his life. In Clark’s portrayal, there are “no kisses – no real need” and an overwhelming sense that sex is a stopgap solution. “My own heels,” she sings, “heal my hurt.” Whether it’s introspection or observation, it’s evocative.
That feeling carries for the album as a whole. Strange Mercy deals nearly exclusively in physical stimuli without getting mixed up in emotions, leaving it up to the audience to decide what is really being conveyed. Clark’s words are left exposed by the often stark music, bare and pragmatic verses laid out in plain verse. It comes to a head in “Northern Lights,” a subverted Spector-ish song that pops kernels of chaos into gratifying resolution. “If you say it is,” sings Clark, “then I guess it is what you say it is.” The track is a standout on an album full of thrilling looks that appear deceptively simple on first glance. Strange Mercy is Clark’s most whole, poignant work to date. It’s an exciting evolution for St. Vincent’s sound — a visceral album full of beauty and chaos. And, perhaps most exciting, it sounds like Annie Clark is still just beginning.