St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Though I've been a fan of St. Vincent since 2007's Marry Me, I'll admit I've always considered Annie Clark to be a sort of second-rate Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). Both women share a flair for the dramatic, once played second fiddle to Sufjan Stevens in his touring band and have similar rich, nearly operatic vocal timbres that, at times, are capable of sounding eerily identical. However, as Worden has veered in a lighter, more playful direction with her latest release, Clark's music has only grown darker, weirder and louder over the years. In fact, within the first thirty seconds of Strange Mercy's jarring yet oddly addictive opening track, "Chloe in the Afternoon," it becomes quite clear that, three albums in, Clark has succeeded in carving out a musical niche all her own, specializing in sounds unabashedly cluttered and cacophonous but also strangely beautiful. Strange Mercy picks up where Clark's last album, Actor, left off. Much heavier and more experimental than her debut, Actor also felt slightly undercooked; though brimming with large-scale ideas, it seemed often too scaled-back and reserved, as though Clark didn't feel quite courageous enough yet to fully let go and bring her crazy concepts to completion. Now, with Strange Mercy, she seems to have finally cast off all reservations and though the results aren't always conventionally pretty, they are refreshing and intriguing. The first half of the album is near flawless. Following the aforementioned opener is the perfect representation of Clark's numerous talents in "Cruel," which sets her deceptively sweet vocal delivery up against wicked lyrical barbs ("They could take or leave you/So they took you and they left you/How could they be casually cruel?") and abrupt bursts of distorted, punchy guitar. "Cheerleader" does away with the faux-sweetness entirely, instead employing unsettling vocal effects to lend a creepy atmosphere to the verses and culminating in a satisfyingly passionate chorus. With all of its intricacies and technicalities, Strange Mercy could have easily gotten lost in the process and, as a result, come off as remote and cold. Luckily, this is not the case and the title track is perhaps the album's most emotionally affecting moment. The first half of the song meanders along gorgeously before unexpectedly switching gears, allowing Clark to croon insistently, the determination in her voice palpable, "If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up/No, I - I don't know what." The interrupted, stream-of-consciousness style of the lyrics only adds to their impact. Past this point, the album does begin to drag slightly, though it never becomes anything less than a pleasure to listen to and the final track, "Year of the Tiger," is another marvel. As a whole, Strange Mercy may not be as immediately accessible as Clark's previous albums but it rewards repeated listens in a way that they do not. It's the kind of album that's full of tiny surprises; the fun lies in uncovering them.