St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

St. Vincent

Strange Mercy (2011)

4AD Records

Tons of comparisons run through my mind when I listen to St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), and they're in terms of aesthetic instead of sound. She's a fearless pop experimentalist, like Björk, Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel. She's a fiery fret player who can downplay her skills in favor of a song, like Prince. She has a beautiful singing voice and employs swelling, dreamy strings, like a Disney movie, but she's also pretty fucking dark at times, like a Disney movie. Strange Mercy, her third full-length, showcases it all.

Previous album Actor hangs heavily over Strange Mercy, and I tend to think of the two as part of a bigger whole. Vincent's debut, Marry Me, was a pretty straightforward indie pop record, but Actor was a real artistic breakthrough, a nearly gothic album in its longing, desolation and discordant textures. But it still had some pop tendencies, something that Strange Mercy obscures. Sure, there's some big singles in the mix, like "Cruel," but this is also Vincent's most difficult album to date.

"Chloe in the Afternoon" opens the record with a beguiling mix. It starts off just like another Vincent track in pixie mode before her guitar snarls through the mix. But it's not quite a rocker either; rather, it's a slinking, menacing tune about infidelity. It is not a feel good summer hit, something that "Cruel" would be if it wasn't about feeling ruined. And that's the kind of album Strange Mercy is, a weird dichotomy of beauty and despair (Just look to the song titles: "Neutered Fruit," "Hysterical Strength").

In interviews, Vincent has declared Strange Mercy a more guitar-driven record, but I don't quite agree. I'd say synthesizers have just as strong of an impact. Sometimes they just add more atmosphere, but they especially stand out on tracks like "Surgeon." Vincent lays down a feathery guitar pattern while Bobby Sparks makes his Moog scream out in a section that can only be described as pretty darn prog rock.

As far as difficult third records go, Strange Mercy is still mighty appealing, even if it shies away from big choruses. It's still plenty dark like Actor, but it doesn't try to cut that darkness quite as much with hooks. Rather, it just leaves it all out on display. We can debate which album is better, as long as we agree that this is another artistic triumph.