St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

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.

Strange Mercy is out 9/13 from 4AD. The album is now streaming at NPR.

Comments (32)
  1. Please tell me that this means it leaked. I’ve been anticipating this SO HARD.

  2. People call it tension, I call it repression. I feel like she needs to let loose and get a little messy. Even the parts that are attempting to , feel rigid and overly calculated. There’s also something incredibly cold about her voice. She’s clearly a talented person and songwriter, her music just doesn’t ever hit at any emotional core. It’s like looking at everything through a window.

    • I’m definitely on your side here. I really like her stuff but I feel like there’s a deeper layer that hasn’t been explored in the way that I would like it to be. So I can’t help but appraise it through that lens.

    • i agree completely – she has skills aplenty, her music is technically good, but it sounds like it’s lacking passion and heart…leaves me a bit cold. i guess it’s a little like watching inception.

      • Whoa file that Inception comparison under “Things I Wish I Had Thought Of.” At least Ellen Page had nothing to do with Strange Mercy. But then again, I haven’t seen the liner notes so I can’t be sure.

      • IMHO it should be obvious from the videos that Annie is cultivating this aloof character that IS repressed. Like David Lynch’s films, St Vincent thrives on the tension of maintaining order when all is falling apart: the jarring aspects of many of the songs/the use of melodies lifted from either cartoons or Disney films/the flat deliver of the verses against the slightly off-kilter and pitched deliver of the choruses. Yes indeed, another critical darling in our midst.

    • Truest thing I’ve ever read. That’s what’s missing from so much good music today. It’s all so calculated like the artists just can’t stand the thought of their ideas getting hurt.

    • Sorry to rain on the “criticize Annie/St. Vincent” parade, but I like her music. A lot!

      I call it tension *and* repression. I don’t see how the two are necessarily different. I’ve seen her live twice, and met her once, and it definitely seems that everything she does is deliberate and thought-through. Why is this necessarily a bad thing? If her tensity comes out in her music then well, maybe that’s just her style–and, by extension, a reflection of her personality. And maybe her perfectionism is a result of her self-doubt.

      I like the coldness in her voice and the tension/repression in her music. When I met her, she seemed genuinely flustered and wide-eyed after her performance. My friend asked for and received a hug, while I complimented her guitar, and she was very friendly but also very awkward and guarded.

      • It appears we have different opinions. You like her for precisely the reasons I don’t. I’m not a particular fan of cold and ‘guarded’ musicians. Nor do I need anymore tension/repression in my life.

        • Fair enough. I just wanted to state my opinion that the tension IS the emotional core you claimed was missing.

          I understand the thing about not wanting more tension/repression, but for some reason I personally enjoy confronting directly the things I most dislike.

          Plus, her music sounds quite pleasant to my ears–though I can understand why, in a sense, they wouldn’t to other peoples’. :-)

          • Oops–”*it* wouldn’t to other peoples’.” Plus it’s quite awkward to end a sentence with a possessive like that–probably inappropriate, but pl!ease don’t flag it

  3. I just found out M83′s album leaked. If I found out this leaked as well I might have a heart attack.

  4. After one listen, I looooove this album.

  5. Heh, Bob Boilen.

  6. “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.”

    –YES. This, completely.

  7. While the comment about “horror movie notion of something appearing as totally pleasant” is an awesome way to describe her music, I think that the opposite side to that is the artificiality that Annie shows with her characters (on Actor/in her videos). I don’t think that means she’s lacking any heart or real emotion, I think it’s just how sees human interaction. For me, it makes her music all the more visceral for it because she is very much trying to get beyond the appearance something; to whatever is lurking deep down. My Brightest Diamond and Bjork do the same thing. I think she’s just fascinated by the roles people play, and the expectations of those roles, which to in her mind seems to cause an almost violent reaction in us (in my opinion anyway), though the characters seem to lack the will to do anything. Like, everyone is always at someone’s mercy. So combining this sense of an almost complete complacency with a violent reactionary side, I think you’ve got something very strange indeed.

  8. god damn, way too much good stuff leaked this week. how the hell and i supposed to listen to all of this and watch copious amounts of college football over the next few days?? life is hard.


  10. You can stream the album now on NPR…FYI

  11. Listened through 3/4 on the way to school. pretty fantastic.

  12. “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.”

    But apparently the ability to construct a proper, cohesive opening sentence is lost on the writer.


    Apparently, the appeal of a girl who looks like an American Doll who also happens to create manic, spastic riffs is not lost on the people.

    Love the album.

  13. “Cruel” is easily one of the best songs of the year. I feel like I could write a college essay about how fantastically arranged and paced it is. Good Lord.

  14. I don’t understand why people think her music lacks an emotional core. I don’t even consider it pop music, I consider her more along the lines of a composer than anything else. But just because it’s not intuitive or immediate doesn’t mean it lacks emotion, it’s just that, compositionally, it’s more layered than something most people are used to.

  15. I thought the best songs were at the end myself.

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