St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Since Annie Clark is such a one for contradictions, how about this one? Strange Mercy is, at the same time, her most shocking and most unsurprising record. I mean, it’s like she put the thing through a blender, but of course it’s like she put it through a blender. Who are we talking about? This is St. Vincent’s career, which has thus far has developed into a glowing success without daring adhere to the normal structure of indie pop. It’s much more sinister than that- Actor, as she put it herself, was influenced by fairy tales, but only in the wholly ***ed-up, completely backwards Hans Christian Andersen way that fairy tales get told. That’s what made “Black Rainbow” sound as if she was travelling the Yellow Brick Road backwards, arriving at the hurricane for her final scene. So yes, it’s shocking to hear her send the structure of a song a little awol, to watch as she twists a purdy scene into a terrifying one (“What Me Worry,” my goodness), but don’t tell me you aren’t waiting for Strange Mercy to hit that sludgy, disastrous moment.
I guess St. Vincent likes the little disasters as much as we do. I found myself doing a fair amount of eye-rolling the first time I played Strange Mercy, because you’re not waiting for long. In fact, Strange Mercy self-destructs within seconds; “Chloe In the Afternoon” is deliberately off-centre, its swampy guitar work giving more texture than melody (that’s a guitar?!) and Clark flat-out refusing to resolve her voice with the song’s rhythm, putting her words a literal second or two early, or maybe late. It’s hard to tell when the song ends sounding so completely whole. You can be just as well astonished by the same trick played on “Northern Lights,” where she pulls back the song, ready to thrust into full gear, for a kind of non-solo in which her guitar simply circulates a disgusting noise for a little while before releasing the song for a climax played straight. It’s one of those on-paper things, really: these little noises should be nothing more than plain ugly diversions from otherwise irresistible pop songs, but thrown into the middle of a song as simple as “Northern Lights,” doesn’t that sludgy patch sound sort of assured? It’s like a signature, that squiggly, atonal moment of nothing, whether it stands out as surreally as it does here, or whether it marks the heavy chorus of “Cheerleader.”
Even if Strange Mercy is like a blender with its top blown off, it’s undeniable how convincing St. Vincent has become. Actor was produced to be almost suffocating, and as a result had songs that felt compressed in sound and time. Her third record feels like an attempt to remould Actor with all the space in the world. It continues to merge together two atmospheres, one eerie and the other distinctly vintage, and as a result songs like “Surgeon” ooze with the confidence of a musician who knows her own game. The intro of “Surgeon” echoes Nancy Sinatra’s ‘60s Bond tune, “You Only Live Twice,” but is only there long enough for the song to become too warped for this pleasant nostalgia (“best find a surgeon / come cut me open”). It’s a testament to Clark’s songwriting skills how we are forced to note both of these atmospheres colliding.
For a record that’s so deliberately messy, it’s nice to note that Strange Mercy says that nothing’s so cut up it can’t be fixed. “Strange Mercy,” the record’s title track, is as scattered as the record itself, the drum beat a little out of the way, but it feels like one of the most sincere pieces of music in St. Vincent’s short career. It’s devoid of any theatrics and awarded more space than she has given to any other song, only indulging a climax for seconds where a lesser musician would need minutes. The song reaches, of course, the moment it has to reach- it has to be contradictory, as unsettling as it is beautiful- but I like to think there’s no line in Clark’s career that can be as brilliantly sweet as this one. “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up / I don’t know what.” Not that it even ends up meaning anything, but it acts as a summation of what Strange Mercy is concerned with- both the shocking and the comforting, always at the same time, always nothing less than beautiful, even if things have to get a little ugly.