Annie Clark’s third album as St. Vincent largely rests on the neck of her guitar. While Clark’s ability as a player who coaxes unorthodox sounds out of her six-strings has always been one of her strengths, Strange Mercy finds her shredding exact points and shapes through distortion. These shapes are wielded like other instruments – at times the guitar sounds like a wobbly proggy synthesizer, others a parping and unctuous brass horn, but rarely does the instrument ape standard rock histrionics (That said the rising caterwaul guitar notes in ‘Northern Lights’ have to be heard to be believed).
Strange Mercy is not a radical departure for Clark. It has a similar feel to second album Actor. This time though, the songs are more tightly woven together. Actor was built on dreamy atmospherics but here, those dreamscapes are embedded more readily into the tracks – the hard and soft are more comfortable with each other. ‘Surgeon’ for example, is a song with wire-thin guitar signatures, sprawling filmic strings, subtle backing vocals, jazz-bass and a pretty insane solo from a synthesizer from beamed from 1983 while Clark sings “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open”.
Which is another thing you should know about Annie Clark. Her lyrics often allude to masochistic tension (‘I’ve seen America with no clothes on’ – ‘Cheerleader’) and relationship imperfections (“What is so pressing you can’t undress me anyway?” – ‘Dilettante’). Actions are often forbidden (“Sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you” – ‘Strange Mercy’), and intentions are often hidden (“I’ve told whole lies with a half smile” – ‘Cheerleader’).
The result is a dense record where the tensions between opposites create their own space, where Clark is left free to ruminate upon those contradictions and she does so, much more alluringly and consistently than before.