“I make a living telling people what they want to hear,” St. Vincent, known to her mom and the tax man as Annie Clark, warbles more than half way through her splendid third album, Strange Mercy. The thing about that line though, tongue-in-cheek as it may be, is that it seems as much like Clark trying to convince herself of its truth as it seems like an earnest boast. Because if there’s one thing St. Vincent usually does not accomplish, it’s telling people what they want to hear. From the jump, Clark has used St. Vincent’s gnarled, idiosyncratic, delicate music to excise the worries and nervousness that consume her. After all, the first track on her first album (2007’s Marry Me) had “I’m not anything” as its refrain, and the best song on her sophomore album (2009’s Actor) had Clark spelling out “help me” over a funk beat.
But the thing is, after years of being poised for a breakthrough, Strange Mercy might be the first St. Vincent album to reach a wide audience, coming after years of consistent love from the likes of the National and Sufjan Stevens and recent notice in SPIN cover stories, raucous Big Black covers, and stunningly great videos. After years on the nervous periphery, Strange Mercy finds Clark ready for the bigger environs of indie rock, with some of her most musically adventurous and self-confessional songs yet. It might not be as beloved as her still great Actor, but Strange Mercy is the record that should get dilettantes on board (thanks to songs like “Dilettante”).
Strange Mercy opens with the best four-song run in St Vincent’s catalog, launching with the crunchy “Chloe in the Afternoon,” and culminating with the soft-jazz freakout of “Surgeon.” St. Vincent’s music has been long been a posture war between Clark’s touching, lilting vocals and her ability to rip shit up on guitar, with her songs forming some subtle balance between the two. But this opening stretch of Strange Mercy is the finest touchstone of that balance, with album highlight “Cruel” being formed by some of Clark’s funkiest guitar work and a disco beat, crossed with her sweet vocals about the surprising cruelty of people. “Cheerleader” struts into place like a brontosaurus in its choruses, while its verses are all sweet talk and lines like “I’ve had good times with some bad guys/ I’ve told whole lies with a half smile.”
The major change for Clark on this album, though, is that she’s less the nervous woman crying for help, and more the focused artiste chronicling her foibles. She says it takes a great strength to just stand up with her grief on “Hysterical Strength,” and goes to great lengths to self-criticize herself for her rush for self-fulfillment on “Year of the Tiger.” “Italian shoes, like these rubes know the difference, I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie,” she says on that track, before the fuzzed out breakdown with the shout-along refrain of “Oh America, can I owe you one?”
The irony is that this is maybe the least out-front Clark has been for a record. This is, after all, the first St. Vincent album with Clark’s face on the cover. When she first appeared in 2007, wide-eyed and bushy-haired, it was all too easy to pigeonhole Clark and St. Vincent as another “women in rock” article hook, easy fodder for listicles about “chicks who play guitar.” I’ll leave that to writers with more feminist leanings than myself, but Clark’s catalog has stood up beyond whatever preconceived ideas that usually follow female indie songwriters in the blogosphere, as she has released increasingly great albums. Strange Mercy is her best yet, a deft mixture of self-confession, master class musicality, and downright unshakable songs. “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more,” Clark says early here. She’ll have her own soon enough.