10:34 PM EDT, September 11, 2011
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Annie Clark, who records under the name St. Vincent, took a giant leap on her second album, the 2009 release “Actor.” It tucked double-edged lyrics inside a plush bed of orchestration, and broke up dreamy soundscapes with noisy guitar intrusions. “Strange Mercy” (4AD) doesn’t so much alter that approach as make it even more dramatic. There are even denser arrangements, evoking soundtracks to iconic movies (John Barry’s theme for “You Only Live Twice” is quoted at the outset of “Surgeon”), and even more violent guitar spasms.
Toggling back and forth between harmony and disruption, the songs examine characters as they cope with whatever strange or disappointing twist their lives have taken: the loveless tryst at the heart of “Chloe in the Afternoon,” the pliant partner who rebels against her background role in “Cheerleader,” the protective mother in the title track, the disappointed New Year’s celebrant in “Champagne Year.”
Clark doesn’t betray her character’s anxiety. They’re tough to crack, or at least trying to be. Her airy, trilling voice floats above, disembodied from the brutality, as if hardening itself against more heartaches to come. Instead, the turmoil behind the deadpan singing is conveyed through the music. Clark’s guitar doesn’t always sound like a guitar – it is distorted, smudged, sometimes altered beyond recognition. It can also be a disruptive force, as in “Northern Lights,” lurking in the margins only to pounce in a blur of distortion.
The narrator fights to maintain control. “I make a living telling people what they want to hear/It’s not a killing, but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear,” she sings in “Champagne Year.” In other words, she’ll find a way to cope with anything life throws at her. In that way, “Strange Mercy” resonates as a strangely moving album about resilience. It’s as messy as life often can be, ugly and beautiful all at once. To survive those contradictions, St. Vincent suggests, you have to embrace them. Or turn them into a song.
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