Classic Review – Strange Mercy / St. Vincent

How old does an album have to be to be considered a classic? Strange Mercy was released in 2011, more than four years ago, yet I already consider it to be a classic. Premature? Not if OK Computer was declared the greatest album of all time only months after its release. If you are unsure who St. Vincent is, let me fill you in. St. Vincent (Annie Clark) is a singer-songwriter from Dallas who dropped out of revered (condemned) Berklee College of Music. By this point in her career St. Vincent had released two successful indie-pop records by the name of Marry Me, which had European-indie flares and Actor, which made use of flutes, funnily enough. So when Strange Mercy comes around it’s a whole new ballgame. St. Vincent embraced a few electronic touches (Surgeon) and made more elaborate use of the guitar, creating a whole new sound for herself that would set her apart from any competition. She fully embraced the creepy-but-innocent atmosphere that had been restrained on the previous two albums and what Annie Clark created was a masterpiece for the modern age.

‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ dives straight into the creepy aesthetic mixed with innocent, angelic vocals. It’s a song based on a French film about an affair, but the song takes the theme much darker, with Clark singing about ‘Black, black pearl / horse-hair whip’. It’s an uncomfortable song to listen to, with the chorus being composed of ‘no kisses / no real need’, which sums up the record as a series of bold statements. This kind of sexual lyricism carries on into ‘Surgeon’ where Clark says ‘I spent the summer on my back’. It’s almost as if she wants to make the listener squirm in their headphones. If ‘Marry Me’ and ‘Actor’ were innocent records, this record (much like the artwork) has a whole lot more bite. The sound of the album is very much akin to the artwork, as St. Vincent is screaming from inside a tomb, but no-one can hear her, so she lets all the secrets and statements out because she knows she’s the only one who can hear them.

The album’s first half is the hit-packed opener consisting of ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’, ‘Cruel’, ‘Cheerleader’ and ‘Surgeon’. ‘Cheerleader’, arguably one of Clark’s most successful tracks when Strange Mercy came about, was another of the album’s barebones tracks of often cutting declarations ‘I’ve seen America with no clothes on’, which rivals Arcade Fire’s ‘I don’t wanna live in America no more’ from ‘Windowsill’ in terms of grand criticisms of America. The theme of being a cheerleader ties in with America, as though Clark is abandoning all stereotypes of the country she lives in. There is the thinly-veiled feminism of ‘I’ve been dumb when I knew better / tried too hard to be clever’, which sounds like a model or women in general being told the way they have to act in order to achieve the status of the ‘perfect woman’.

The instrumentation ranges from synthesizer/guitar madness at ‘that bit’ on ‘Surgeon’, to the thick, sludgy riffs of ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘Hysterical Strength’ to the beautiful, twinkly guitar lines of ‘Strange Mercy’. ‘Strange Mercy’, the track itself is one of the highlights of the album, something of an underrated centrepiece of the album compared to the more exciting tracks on the album. The song starts in a subdued tone, before transitioning to a gorgeous fingerpicked verse and then exploding into an abrasive guitar tone for when Clark starts singing ‘If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up / I don’t know what’. This suggests that despite St. Vincent making declarations of identity and protection, she still feels that pang of vulnerability from ‘Marry Me’ and ‘Actor’. Only when her next album came out would she truly embrace herself as the dominant character. However, the balancing of personalities on ‘Strange Mercy’ is what makes it a record of two sides, the Jekyll and Hyde of Annie Clark.

The vulnerability returns for ‘Neutered Fruit’, where Clark sings ‘did you ever stare at me / like I stared at you?’, behind froggish guitars and marching drums. The song has themes of an unappreciative and uncaring other half as Clark sits on the side wondering whether to stay or go. However, once again St. Vincent contradicts with ‘Year Of The Tiger’, singing ‘Oh America, can I owe you one?’ which doesn’t sound anything like ‘Cheerleader’-St.Vincent. She also plays into the criticism of modern life that she’d perfect later on when she sings ‘my kingdom for a cup of coffee’, possibly about people trading what they love for something that is more exciting but is more than likely exhaustible, which is familiar to the affair theme of ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’. St. Vincent doesn’t pretend to be perfect, this album bares out that everything she is, is a contradiction of itself. If she says ‘I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more’ and then sings ‘It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s the one we got’, then it’s more than likely that she means something else. The bottom line is that humans are creatures of different ideals and values and can’t be pinned down and boxed off into categories. We’re flawed beings with moments of intense vulnerability and ego. And just maybe that’s ok.


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