St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)

by Jay Mattson

When I first started writing this review, I had trouble finding the right words to lead with. Many of the albums I review come from artists and bands I’m comfortably familiar with, so there’s some semblance of background knowledge. Unfortunately, Annie Clark’s sophomore album (and most successful) as St. Vincent, Actor, was an album that I never truly embraced. I loved a few tracks (“Actor out of Work”, “Marrow”), but it faded from my mind after a week of listening to it. My past neutrality toward St. Vincent is one of the reasons I wanted to write this review for Strange Mercy. I wanted to give myself a second chance to let Clark ‘wow’ me the way she did many others with Actor two years ago.

Mission accomplished.

Strange Mercy marks a sonic growth for Clark. More so than ever, she’s taking the inherent grandiosity of her instrumentation to its natural conclusion, turning each track into a swelling, jangly, distorted, yet organized chaos (think Arcade Fire with feedback), rather than constantly reeling it back in, which was one of the reasons Actor felt half-baked to me. Clark’s signature distorted electric guitars are in full force on most tracks. The exceptions are the title track and the first single, “Surgeon”, which is actually one of the weaker songs on the album. But even in those instances, there are portions of each song that weigh heavier than normal.

“Cheerleader”, a sad journey through Clark’s misdirected good intentions, billows back and forth like the inhale/exhale of some psychedelic bagpipe. One of the more cleverly named songs in recent memory, “Neutered Fruit”, has a style that can only be described as Clark’s own. I supposed there are some funk and mid-‘90s alternative influences there (not to mention the choral backing, which has always been a favorite of mine), but most of it is so well crafted to Clark’s tendencies that she makes it her own, through and through. “Fruit” has some of the best arrangements I’ve heard in quite a while. Clark has such a way with balance and execution of multi-instrumentation that can sound, at first listen, mangled and unkempt. Further listening reveals just how precise Clark’s structure is; she seamlessly blends the swell with the constraint.

Strange Mercy... out 9/12

And while it sounds like things might slow down around the time “Champagne Year” finishes, Clark sneaks in some Broadway-style, big-band kookiness behind her gypsy-like accordion work on “Dilettante” and follows it up with one of her funkiest songs to date, “Hysterical Strength”, a track that girls in short shorts and leggings (or raggedy dresses) will be stomping to for months to come while smoking cigarettes and drinking PBRs on a porch at 2AM. St. Vincent is good for that sort of thing.

“Year of the Tiger” escorts the listener out of Strange Mercy with a bizarrely fascinating appeal, much like how “Chloe in the Afternoon” brought us in. A distortion-heavy opening paves the way for more smooth-sailing, a melody that rides on a sporadically occurring acoustic guitar with haunting subtlety. Many artists tend to drown out similar acoustics under the weight of other electrics. Clark’s attention to detail shows most in the instances where you can hear the acoustics. The track also contains some of the best lyrics of the album – “Oh, America, can I owe you one?” Falling into suit, Clark closes the track and album with a healthy dose of intensity.

Annie Clark has a difficult niche to fill. She straddles the female singer/songwriter and gypsy-punk/lo-fi genres to a stellar degree. The problem is that these two genres don’t often intersect, leaving their respective fans weary in appreciating the album as much as they could be. Come in with expectations, and Strange Mercy may disappoint you somewhere along the line. But come in with an open mind and you may hear the beautiful harmonies behind the craziness.

St. Vincent – Cruel

St Vincent – Surgeon

Official Site / MySpace / BUY

Jay Mattson

Depending on when you ask, I live in Greensboro, NC or Daegu, South Korea. I'll either be teaching English to Korean children or waiting tables in the United States. I'm currently writing reviews, features and weekly wrap-ups for Obscure Sound and producing an album with my fiance and best friend.


  1. This is really warm and refreshing..reminds me almost of andrew Lloyd webber style kind of theatre music. Like starlight express or something. Love it! 🙂

  2. Loving this on first listen. “Cruel” and “Surgeon” stand out for me. Going to be hard to top “Just the same but brand new” off of Actor. One of my top songs of all time.

  3. Annie Clark has certainly grown as an artist but it’s hard to say exactly how she has arrived to this new sound that is the “Strange Mercy.” Is it the collaboration with her new, synth heavy band? Or is it the producer who is credited with a very big and bold font on the back of the record? St. Vincent has always been an interesting artist and her curiosity with songwriting and production has certainly grown.

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