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With her previous two albums, St. Vincent mastermind Annie Clark developed a reputation for being a wispy, mesmerizing chanteuse with an elegant eccentric streak. Not much changes with Strange Mercy but her remarkable continuation of artistic development. From start to finish, Strange Mercy is a triumph of the creative process.
Clark continues along the same vein she struck with 2009’s Actor. Angular guitar plucks and gentle, almost unassuming vocals drift alongside jolting, sometimes bizarre rhythms. Album opener “Chloe in the Afternoon” is a frenetic, haunting juxtaposition of tranquil melody and a staccato drum loop. It starts Strange Mercy off on a hobbling note, and may put some listeners off.
Yet Clark’s greatest strength may be the unconventional beauty she forges from the sum of her music’s parts, something more determined listeners will realize as the album progresses. “Cruel,” a bouncy pseudo-disco track flaunting Clark’s ability to write a catchy hook when she needs to, is just strange enough to beckon you in further.
A sense of emotional immediacy also permeates Strange Mercy that sets it apart from St. Vincent’s previous efforts. The title track is a poignant ballad with a melody that never lets go of your ears, an experience both cathartic and harrowing.
Clark’s guitar work is something to praise as its own entity—she uses the instrument not to ground the music, but to help propel the music to celestial heights. Its crunching, distorted flourishes put the heft of Clark’s emotions under pressure, making each song struggle with anxiety and nearly frantic energy.
“Champagne Dream” is another triumph, showcasing Clark’s lower range in a stark confession of self-doubt and reflection. “Dilettante” and “Hysterical Strength” gallop along on the weight of solid beats and virtuosic instrumentation, recalling Björk at her tamest. Strange Mercy closes on a high note with “Year of the Tiger,” a song that suggests there is sanctity in the strange and abstract.
With all of Strange Mercy’s musical fragmentation, it can be easy to forget its backbone—the songwriting. Clark proves that she’s a force to be reckoned with among the music world’s canon of great songwriters, the Joni Mitchell of our generation. Strange Mercy is an uncompromising beauty that will retain its magic for ages.