There is a lovely dichotomy between Annie Clark’s ladylike, demure image and the intensity of her music that has drawn me to her work as St. Vincent. Clearly, however, it is the grey areas between these poles of interpretation/representation where Clark’s most interesting and subtle ideas are explored, such as her continued fascination with mental instability and the darkness that lurks just under the surface mundanity of everyday life. Strange Mercy picks up where 2009’s Actor left off, continuing a trajectory started by her debut outing in 2007, Marry Me (named after Arrested Development character Maeby’s joking exclamation); an off-kilter sensibility that has grown with each successive album. Where Marry Me was relatively innocent; primarily emotionally and musically upbeat with occasional peeks below a calm, collected surface (“Your Lips Are Red”, with its stabbing bursts of piano and guitar) and Actor was more invested in acknowledgement of an unknown, indefinable horror (the creepy verses of “Marrow” narrating a bizarre biology-as-emotion metaphor before giving way to an aggressively upbeat, verging on funk, electronic-enhanced refrain that has Clark begging for help), Strange Mercy brings Clark’s often aggressive, fuzz tone guitar to the fore, helping flesh out songs that are more baroque than rock in arrangement and whose lyrics are often concerned with subverting conventional femininity.
Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of Clark’s straightforwardly beautiful singing voice with her lyrics and guitar-playing that makes her art so compelling. There are angry elements to her songs, but the songs themselves can’t be categorized as simply angry. There are peaceful, content elements to her songs, but the songs definitely can’t be categorized as either of those things. “Chloe in the Afternoon” (which shares its title with Éric Rohmer’s 1972 film) opens the album dramatically with images of a dominatrix and client having a tryst during the client’s break from work; whether Clark is singing from the perspective of dominatrix or client is unclear. The barely-melodic verses are strung together with menacing guitar riffs that give way to the sexually satisfied (relative) calm of the repetitive refrain. When she serenely sings “no kisses, no real names” the anonymity of the encounter is made clear, as is the fulfillment of pleasure through pain (signified by that satisfyingly raw riff).
Clark continues in this vein of (hyper-)sexualized femininity with the song “Cheerleader” and its verses narrating the reasons why a female character wants to give up her presumably small-town American life of pleasing boys and being everything for everyone (“I’ve had good times with some bad guys… I’ve played dumb when I knew better/Tried too hard just to be clever”). Clearly this sexualized cheerleader of the title is a thinly-veiled metaphor for any woman who wants to live and experience outside of the internally- and externally-imposed limits of her life thus far. A heavy-handed comparison, perhaps, but when this cheerleader’s confessions are so honestly and unapologetically expressed and are accompanied by that mercurial guitar work, particularly emphasizing Clark’s enunciation of the word ‘I’ in the chorus and lending that refrain a powerful sense of personal resolve without resorting to cheap sentimentality, the song succeeds beautifully and works to further evolve Clark’s exploration of femininity.
Elsewhere on Strange Mercy Clark moves from light ‘n’ groovy pop to an increasingly urgent and anxious guitar solo that screams above her muted voice and a deeply ominous synth line on “Surgeon.” On “Northern Lights” she contemplates an otherwise dark winter and the depression that inevitably comes with it (“Yeah, your pendulum hasn’t swung back in/It’s a champagne year full of sober months/Through my maudlin days, through my dry moments”) and “Champagne Year” begins with a vocal figure reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s much celebrated, much covered, and pretty much ubiquitous “Hallelujah” while singing with a kind of shrugged-shoulders stoicism, realizing the inevitably of the mundanities of life and how we cope with them. Strange Mercy really imparts the sense that Clark has reached adulthood as a songwriter and as a person; there’s a theme of resignation that runs concurrent with the idea of new beginnings through these songs. She is squaring her shoulders, looking her future in the proverbial eye and accepting the unpleasantness that is sure to come, while at the same time looking back at what has brought her to this turning point. Perhaps this is why I love the album so much: it reflects the complexity and sadness and strangeness of navigating my future while being very much still tied to my past.
I’d also like to briefly divert attention from the album to the video for the first single from it, “Cruel.” The theme of conventional, traditional femininity subverted is continued in this clip, directed by Terri Timely. In it, Clark plays a woman who is kidnapped by a wifeless and motherless family and made to fill those roles. She (quite hilariously) fails at all of the domestic tasks that fall to her and is clearly not the wife and mother this family were looking and hoping for, so they dispose of her by burying her alive. The surreal highlight of the clip is Clark performing a guitar solo while hooded and tied up in the trunk of her new family’s car, followed closely by images of her singing from a grave and being slowly immersed in shoveled dirt. What’s interesting here is the uneasy humour imparted by the idea that a woman might actually be killed by an otherwise quite nice (although rather creepy, and definitely demanding) family for failing in this traditional female role. She is not, however, made to continue this work until she improves, but is discarded quickly and easily. Her suitability to the role is not assumed by her femaleness, but rather tested through a kind of audition (you get the feeling that the family is quite familiar with this kidnap-a-new-mom scenario). This is underlined (to highly amusing effect) by the pitying looks the children in particular give her. She should know better, but she doesn’t, and they don’t have time for this kind of ineptitude.
Also attached is a live clip of St. Vincent’s performance of Big Black’s “Kerosene” from the show last May in New York City celebrating 10 years since Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life was published. The woman can shred.