Apparently, the appeal of a girl that looks an American Doll who also happens to create manic, spastic riffs is not lost on the people. Annie Clark’s St. Vincent project has been universally admired and rhapsodized over ever since she sprung from Sufjan’s Stevens’ band (which also serves as some kind of songwriting academy). Her second LP Actor earned high marks across the board, and her third, Strange Mercy will likely repeat that success. In case there were still doubters, she went ahead and covered Tom Waits and Big Black. We had no choice but to love her.
Strange Mercy is good. It’s maybe even really good. It’s a little front-heavy (the run consisting of “Cruel,” “Cheerleader,” and “Surgeon” is a hard triple to top) and it’s tinged with the usual shadowiness that we’ve come to expect from St. Vincent. The textures on Strange Mercy seem more polished and prettier than anything on Actor. Clark channels an entire swath of sonic moods, from paranoid to angry to aloof; songs like “Strange Mercy” and “Champagne Year” seem to be more interested in exploring these inklings, rather than making songs, at least in the traditional sense. Which is perfectly cool, honestly, because some of those environments are so interesting that I’d own real estate inside of them. “Neutered Fruit” is one of the sparer, more straightforward song attempts on the record, letting the guitar do the talking (literally; there’s a talkbox in it!). The strange build and chanting breakdown of “Hysterical Strength,” a song that concludes in a chaotic surge of noise, as well and the grooved-out, not-trying-to-do-too-much swagger of “Year Of The Tiger” end the record on a particularly strong note. The songs on Strange Mercy, at least structurally, come in the St. Vincent mold you might expect, which is to say there isn’t much of one. I haven’t decided whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but there’s one thing I do know: We’ve got another critical darling on our hands here. Somebody alert Bob Boilen.
To me, the most compelling thing about the St. Vincent project has always been the darkness that resides on the edges of the songs, that horror movie notion of something appearing as totally pleasant and harmonious but really harboring a horrible secret. And, maybe it’s just the aftermath of watching that Big Black cover too many times (seriously, watch that!) but I feel like there’s still a little more room for St. Vincent to explore the darker, creepier, angrier moods she constantly keeps at bay. Maybe that tension is what makes it work at the first place, and to break down that wall would be a mistake and threaten her songs’ signature air of nervousness or anxiety. Or maybe that would seal Ms. Clark’s fate as the media star she’s always been projected to be, a status that no number of Tom Waits covers could surpass.