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St Vincent
Strange Mercy Frances Morgan , September 14th, 2011 06:19

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St Vincent Strange Mercy ArtworkOuch. The thwack of John Congleton's trademark slap-in-the-chops production seems, for once, not so excessive, as Annie Clark's third outing as St Vincent kicks off with an account of a cathartic S&M session, voiced with tremulous yearning but powered by whopping great jagged riffs and blocky beats. The slaps continue. Opener 'Chloe in the Afternoon' is the only one that gets a horsehair whip out, it's true, but elsewhere the personae who populate this brilliantly uncomfortable album are still knocked for six. There's an illness or injury that leaves the subject of 'Surgeon' spending a summer "on my back"; or the realisation that you've been sticking up for the wrong team that prompts an anguished chorus of "I, I, I don't want to be a cheerleader no more".

They're hit by sadness and rage on someone else's behalf – a father or son's? – at the title track's climactic mid-point; by creative doubts; by death; and most of all by worry, a frenetic, frantic sense that time has come loose and is slipping away – possibly in both directions ("Gotta get young fast! Gotta get young quick!" Clark hyperventilates on the crunchy, driving rock of 'Northern Lights'). It's no wonder the sound is overdriven and hyper-detailed too.

Annie Clark is no stranger to spinning visceral, ouchy subject matter into uneasily infectious songs: on Strange Mercy's predecessor, Actor, she blithely sang about black eyes at weddings; laughing with a mouthful of blood "from a little spill I took" over a gliding dream of an arrangement. And indie rock's fascination with a bit of the ouch, and with anxiety, is nothing new. But Clark herself is something new, and on this album she's even newer. Her songs have moved beyond blunt contrasts – savage lyrics/sweet tunes; massive drums/Disney strings – and into detailed but spacious constructions, each one like a short, tantalising film.

Already we know she's a formidable craftswoman. Clark can write songs like Harry Nilsson or Dory Previn or whoever your benchmark for wry, classic, nervy songwriting is, and play guitar like Robert Fripp; she can construct prog-disco numbers full of delicious twists with seemingly effortless ease and she does cool stuff like rehabilitate the hook from John Barry's 'You Only Live Twice' (the trippiest Bond theme, ruined for years by Robbie shitting Williams when he sampled it in 'Millennium') for 'Surgeon' and, on the same song, have guest keyboardist Bobby Sparks unleash a pitchbending Moog solo that calls for an extended Patrick Cowley mix. All these are admirable things, but until Strange Mercy it was hard for me to warm to her. Why the shift? It might be the simple sonic reason that Clark's guitar is also the star of Strange Mercy – on Actor, you could sometimes forget what a great guitarist she was – and hearing her relationship with the instrument so clearly is a treat.

Not that it's always nice, of course, and it's never 'natural'. She loves the instrument's ugly, knotty quality, revels in its snarky angles as well as its ability to wail and keen. While it's chopped up and surrounded on all sides by layered harmonies, twinkly synth arpeggios and a zillion other things, the guitar drives Strange Mercy and gives it an awkward and darkly brilliant core. On the initially downbeat 'Neutered Fruit' it punches out a brittle line that almost mirrors the vocal, dueling with it at the end, reflecting the lyrics' unanswered questions. On the gentle, rueful 'Champagne Year', Clark pulls out a surprisingly resonant, mournful solo on the lower strings, and again it tells us volumes. A by-product of this is that the album as a whole breathes easier; a space is opened up for the widescreen, haunting and heavy closer, 'Year Of The Tiger'.

It might also be that the emotional ups and downs of this new album seem more deeply felt and expressed than before. Clark is great at creating characters and stories so it'd be unfair to transfer the mood of uncertainty that hangs over the album directly to her own state of mind, but now the cinematic scenarios of the lyrics feel like fictions built around lived experience and home truths. Crucially, though, her sense of humour remains intact, sharp and lethal – the sweet laments carried by her increasingly accomplished voice feel often to be one step away from, not laughter exactly, but self-deprecation, or a mordant smile at her own expense. It's down to Clark's skill that this doesn't come across as facetiousness or irony, but more a realisation that when things are hitting us the hardest, sometimes all we can do is laugh through the blows and pile on some more harmonies.