Seeing as how I am utterly and madly in love with Annie Clark, I figured it was about time for me to review one of her St. Vincent albums. This is a tough task for me to partake in. Not reviewing the album, that shouldn’t prove too hard. No, the challenge comes from picking which of her albums to review! I could go with my personal favorite, 2007′s Marry Me. Or maybe the lush alterna-pop of her sophomore release, Actor. Either one would make for a fine review in my eyes. But ultimately, I’ve decided to go with her latest release, Strange Mercy. I’ve chosen it for two reasons: I’ve had it on near-constant rotation for about five weeks now and I feel it is her most accomplished album thus far. Not to paint her previous two releases as unaccomplished. In fact, I highly recommend the both of them. I may end up reviewing them at one time or another. But for today, it is this masterpiece I’m here to talk about.
The album starts off with a cacophonous array of multi-tracked Annies. Then, just one. This is Chloe In The Afternoon. After the semi-abstract opening, Annie’s breathless vocals come in and paint a picture of a psychological/sexual wreck of a person. They are unsure of what they want(a common St. Vincent touchstone) and they are frustrated. It’s title and themes come from a French film also known as Love In The Afternoon. And St. Vincent has always been worldly in her music, but it has never sounded as personal as this track. This track feels fully realized and aching, despite it’s under 3 minutes running time. And the film is part of a series known as “Six Moral Tales”, which is fitting because the song itself could be the first part of “Eleven Moral Tales”, as this album could be subtitled. It is a wonderful introduction to an album that is full of moral dilemmas, skewered Social roles, and dark lyrical trips. You have just entered Strange Mercy, this will be your only place to turn back. But that would be too Cruel. Oh, awful pun segue! How I love you. Yes, the next track and first single from the record is called Cruel. Starting with a mixture of what appears to be a orchestra warming up and Annie Clark singing a duet with Annie Clark, this doesn’t seem pop friendly. Not a first, anyways. Then the drum hits come in, followed by a propulsive keyboard riff that will be forevermore ingrained in your head, it becomes stunningly clear that Annie Clark can arrange pop hits better than most of the people in the Pop industry! Also, the music video is darkly hilarious and you should check it out. The next song is Cheerleader, which is another one of the singles from the album. It starts out simple enough, with Annie singing over some picked strings. The opening verse describes a life lived in debauchery, but then the chorus hits. Over pummeling drum hits and guitar strums, Annie proclaims: I-I-I-I-I Don’t Wanna Be Your Cheerleader Now More. The backing music enunciates this drive for freedom. Breaking down walls with music has never sounded so delicate. And following that heavy-metalesque Pop(???)song, we come to Surgeon. I’vedescribed this song before as being the most “dementedly sexy song ever.” and I stick by that. The song slinks along, describing self-medication but hinting at, ahem, more adult matters. The songs just builds and builds to a stunning climax of guitar distortion, squealing synths, and even a theramin. Do not listen to this song at full volume. I learned that the hard way. As if the ending of Surgeon wasn’t enough, the next song, Northern Lights, takes it to a whole new extreme. I’d say that it sounds like if someone took Duran Duran and Sonic Youth and somehow fused them together. And there is an even noisier theramin freak-out at the end of this one. This isn’t your average Art-Pop record, that’s for sure.
Next we come to the title track of the album and it’s my favorite. The song is about what a child has to go through when their father is in prison and it’s really emotional. It build until we reach the breaking point and Annie just wails: “If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up, I don’t know what.” It perfectly blends the anger and frustration that someone in that situation would go through. It’s my favorite moment on the album and it gets me every time. Neutered Fruit is the next song and it has some very vivid imagery with lines like “Shot a hundred arrows at a doe, A hundred sparrows booed.” and a killer backing beat that really drives the song. Champagne Year is a significantly more subdued song that is haunting with it’s sparse instrumentation and lyrics that describe a life that Annie isn’t happy living, but hey, it’s better than nothing. The song was stunning live, as well. Dilettante has a strange, lurching drum beat and guitar part that sounds woozy. Annie sounds like she’s smirking with her vocal delivery, but there is a sense of longing underneath the smile that makes it feel human. The penultimate track is Hysterical Strength which has a strange filter on the drums that gives it an alien feeling. Couple this with Annie’s abstract lyrics and it makes for a strangely moving song. And finally we come to the closer, Year Of The Tiger. We start out with some more booming drums/multiple Annie action, but that segues into some softer acoustic strums, before bringing back the drums in the finale. The lyrics reflect the economic state of our times, with everybody trying to stay ahead of everybody else. Living in fear, in the Year Of The Tiger. With that, the album ends. We’re out.
This is a special album. It’s one of the most innovative, interesting, and intriguing albums to be put out in a long, long time. It resembles in some ways the warped-Americana of albums like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves but can also swing close to the righteous noise-pop of Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods. It’s my favorite album of 2011 and one of my favorite albums of all-time. Long Live St. Vincent.