As clever and insightful as Annie Clark's first two St. Vincent albums were, she sometimes seemed slightly removed, and perhaps somewhat above, her songs’ subjects. However, she’s down and dirty with them on Strange Mercy, a collection of cracked veneers, eye-level confessions, and portraits of breaking points. It’s tempting to call this her most genuine album, but it’s probably more accurate to say it’s Clark's least academic-feeling set of songs. Contrast has always been a major part of her music, and Strange Mercy's juxtapositions of harshness, softness, truth, lies, cruelty, and kindness feel especially pointed and potent. Most apparent is her use of opposing sounds; working with producer John Congleton, she focuses on luxurious strings and woodwinds that float above wobbly keyboards and ugly, distorted guitars that emphasize that these songs are under pressure. Clark finds plenty of range within this palette, though, busting out the talkbox on “Neutered Fruit”’s confrontational jazz-rock and a dance-pop beat on the subtly frantic “Hysterical Strength.” Less obvious are the emotional shifts many of these songs undergo, and how they blur the album’s contrasts. On the title track, Clark goes from vulnerable to protective to violent as she sings “I’ll tell you good news that I don’t believe/If it will help you sleep,” and on “Champagne Year,” she confesses and deceives at the same time. “Cruel” is Strange Mercy's definitive track, putting inspired lyrics like “They could take or leave you/So they took you then they left you” atop strings and woodwinds straight from a vintage musical and a messed-up, fuzzed-out guitar solo. The song gets increasingly anxious as it closes, a pattern Clark repeats throughout the album; indeed, while these songs are some of her most fragmented, each song on Strange Mercy is tied to another. “Surgeon” shares a stuttering beat with opening track “Chloe in the Afternoon” and a similar melody to the declaration of independence that is “Cheerleader.” There’s so much going on musically on Strange Mercy that it could be easy to overlook Clark's growth as a songwriter, but “Year of the Tiger” boasts fully realized storytelling as well as a melody that would do Joni Mitchell or Carole King proud. Full of great lyrics and great playing, Strange Mercy is St. Vincent's most reflective and most audacious album to date, and Clark remains as delicately uncompromising an artist as ever.
Heather Phares, Rovi