Review Summary: Beautiful, compact, and disarming, Annie Clark (and her airtight synth pop songs) deliver a wicked bite.
Annie Clark is a slight, strikingly beautiful wisp of a woman who’s also musically gifted, poised and intelligent. So it was a shock to hear her gently sigh “I spent the summer on my back” on preview track “Surgeon,” the first taste of St. Vincent’s highly-anticipated third album. It’s presumably about getting laid, but I just can’t shake the ever-so-subtle (and creepy) allusion to being a cadaver on a slab. “Come cut me open” Clark breathes over an icy, skittering synth line, metaphorically one would guess, but you’re never quite certain. St Vincent’s third album Strange Mercy is fraught with these kinds of uneasy contradictions; it’s carnal but oddly cold, restrained yet raging, familiar yet alien.
Aesthetically, it sounds like a lot of indie albums in heavy rotation these days --- bright sequencers circa 1981, pulsing New Wave melodies, and crystalline, hear-a-pin-drop production. But despite the creative nicks and nods, Strange Mercy rarely feels derivative. Clark makes these sonic overtures completely her own, injecting synth pop with steely resolve, memorable corkscrew guitar riffs, and lyrical craftsmanship. Clark has made an absorbing, autobiographical album that articulates the precarious and powerful position of a woman in today’s society --- one loaded with sex, violence, and coercion --- with unflinching intensity and bright-eyed clarity.
Her songs are airtight pop constructions, many of which reveal unexpected little twists along the way, like a surprise waiting at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. There are the power drill guitar riffs in “Chloe in the Afternoon” and “Cruel”, the noise freak out at the end of “Surgeon” that sounds like a synthesizer output fed through an exploding oscilloscope, and the unmistakable, echoey keyboard tones that cry out midway through “Strange Mercy” --- a clever, loving nod to Kate Bush’s classic “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” Similarly to Bush’s, Clark’s sweet voice is a firm cord of humanity winding deftly between the digital gurgles, blips, and buzzes.
That kaleidoscope of synthetic sound mirrors Clark’s conflicted sea of emotions, ranging from neurotic neediness (“Did you ever really stare at me, like I stared at you?”) to odd desire (“You’re like a party I heard through a wall/Invite me”) to unadorned anguish (“Hear my hurt”). Sometimes the contrast lives within the confines of just a single song. On “Cheerleader,” Clark points out the matronly way she’s coddled her man’s fragile ego (“I held your bare bones with my clothes on”) but not before plainly admitting “I’ve had good times with some bad guys.” By song’s end, if you’re not careful, you’ll miss how an empowering line like “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more” mutates into “I don’t want to be a dirty girl no more.”
There’s an offhand yet illuminating moment in the album’s title track that best captures the edgy emotional paradox at the heart of Strange Mercy. Clark suddenly threatens “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up…”, then lets the punishment she’ll deliver hang there unspoken. In that instant, her voice and guitar rise up like a pair of dark thunderclouds; the menace is palpable. It’s the essence of Strange Mercy --- pure, porcelain beauty infused with anger and power --- and it’s a pill so cleverly coated with melodic sugar that you never notice how bitter it tastes going down.
Strange Mercy hums with a crackling energy. The modest array of synthesizer effects and Clark’s spartan, yet superb guitar playing seem almost grand within the songs’ compact arrangements --- nothing feels superfluous or gimmicky. Clark’s face has been on the cover of every St. Vincent album (this is her music vehicle) but on Strange Mercy, those perfect features are encased in white rubber, mouth frozen in a silent scream --- an apt image for Clark’s fierce struggle against both emotional and psychological bondage. On closing track “Year of the Tiger” she unexpectedly asks “Oh America, can I owe you one?” over a crunching sonic attack. It’s such a loaded question and one of the most charged lyrics I’ve heard in years. Is she repudiating our country’s obsession with physical attractiveness as status, the male misconception of Madonna as whore, or our culture’s pathological desire to build celebrities up only to tear them down? Either way, Clark sounds like she wants no part of it.
As odd as it sounds, being male, I suspect I’ll never truly appreciate the emotional depths of Strange Mercy, but I can certainly recognize its excellence. Hell, this album is still probably even better than I think it is. Strange Mercy channels the fury, intelligence, and restrained sexuality of the feminine Id more compellingly than any album since PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. And while her weapon is synth pop and not indie guitar rock, Annie handles her axe as well as either of those two ladies. *** cornflake girls, Alanis Morissette and Lilith Fair — this is a one woman movement with legs and bite.