Sep 09, 2011 #37 – St. Vincent
It must be difficult for a songwriter who possesses great wit, extraordinary performance skills, and an ear for complex arrangements to not want to show off now and again, and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark wasn’t immune from flexing her skills on her first two releases. But having already proven that she could write endearingly clever songs in a variety of styles on 2007’s Marry Me, and construct sophisticated art-pop vignettes on 2009’s Actor, Clark takes the less-is-more route with Strange Mercy and ends up with her most distinctive record to date.
That’s not to suggest that Strange Mercy is an exercise in austerity, as it most certainly isn’t. The writing is as lively and colorful as anything she has done, her playing and singing is as spirited as ever, and her arrangements are every bit as ingenious as before. It’s just that these songs are not as eager to impress as Clark’s previous work, more content to take a few good ideas and let them breathe rather than cover them up with other, equally good, ideas. In fact, it’s startling just how bravely naked many of these songs are, with Clark often found straddling a funky beat with little more than her splintering guitar lines and swirling synth textures. From the peculiar Björk-meets-Prince opener “Chloe in the Afternoon” through the soulful art-funk of “Surgeon” and the lustily bleating “Dilettante,” it’s an album that rides an undulating, ever-shifting groove.
Actor was, at its core, a storyteller’s record, and a dark one at that. Strange Mercy reads more like a journal, with the pages all dog-eared to its most painful memories. “Cheerleader,” despite featuring one of the most massive choruses Clark has ever written, also happens to be one of her most conflicted, just as the title track brings to life a story of tragic neglect and promises of retribution. Even more pointed is “Cruel,” a leftfield disco track on which betrayal and disappointment are masked by a bizarre mash-up of Edith Piaf atmospherics and Deerhoof guitar eruptions. In short, where Clark previously impressed through the sheer audacity of her strengths as a songwriter and arranger, here she has stopped trying to impress and simply made an album assembled through feel and intuition, and, taken as a whole, it feels perfect. (www.ilovestvincent.com)
Author rating: 9/10
Average reader rating: 8/10