Singer-songwriter Annie Clark knows how to make bold decisions. After spending three years at Berklee College of Music, she dropped out. Later, she left her posts as guitarist first in the Polyphonic Spree and then as for Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. Soon Clark, under the moniker St. Vincent, masterminded her own one-woman-band. The release of three solo albums since then has made it evident that Clark’s bold decisions are working.
Just listen to a few seconds of any of Clark’s songs. St. Vincent is just different, something only understood through the tickle of your ear. Her perspective is fresh and unexpected. In her evolution as an artist, she has seamlessly glided from art
rock to a symphonic indie style of her own conception. And now, St. Vincent has released a new album: a candid labor of love called Strange Mercy. In it, the exploration of new musical depths cements Clark’s solo voice and is finally beginning to garner St. Vincent the attention she deserves.
After the breadth shown from the sketch-like character vignettes of first album Marry Me, to the almost Wagnerian larger-than-life approach taken in second album Actor, there was no telling what direction St. Vincent would take next. Strange Mercy ultimately departs from the grandiose symphonic filter of Actor, bringing with it instead a more genuine voice. And it carries.
Strange Mercy somehow bridges that impossible divide between accessibility and artistic freedom. The baroque soundscape that characterized Actor has been reigned in. Instead, Clark’s intricate guitar work becomes a focal point of the album, supported by her darkly sweet voice. The effect is dramatic.
Melodies and dialogues are streamlined, but not dumbed down. Clark speaks through her guitar clearly, moving easily between a whole palette of sounds to create distinct identities for each song. And each catchy tune is just that much more infectious—singable, memorable, addictive. Each refrain is anthemic, from the soaring wails of “Cruel” to the angular minimalism of “Dilettante.” The tunes that catch on less quickly end up growing and transforming with each new listen. “Strange Mercy,” the unassuming title track of the album, is layered in a way that grows throughout the song and with each listen. A surprisingly masterful use of ambient noise (a faraway metallic clunking that integrates and adds to the song, for example) combines with an organic blossoming of colors and textures that really stick. In this way, Strange Mercy is somehow able to be both immediately and enduringly satisfying. It’s a formula for both commercial and critical success.