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Ever since her 2007 debut Marry Me, St Vincent- a.k.a Annie Clark -has trod pretty much her own path through the indie world, with her background in the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ backing band giving only a few indications of what was to come in her solo output. Constantly shifting, her music remains on edge, tracks never quite going the way you’d expect. This has come to the fore in Strange Mercy, with Clark stripping of the layered instrumentation of previous album Actor to yield a more synths and guitars approach.
As with previous releases, Annie has a way with words which makes the Disney-esque arrangements of some tracks here appear so out of place as to be menacing. On the title track, she remarks "I’ll be with you lost boys/ Sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you" over a backing of light music that wouldn’t feel out of place in a hotel lobby. Lyrically and sonically she has stepped up a gear from Actor. Never does the backing to any track stay still, with all sorts of slips and tangents reaching unusual corners of sound. ‘Surgeon’ runs the length, from woozy harmonies to guitar-funk freak out in the space of 4 minutes, whilst ‘Neutered Fruit’ feels like a spiritual cousin of ‘Marry Me’ from her debut, with Annie calling “Did you ever really care for me?” over music throwing out angelic backing vocals and her slightly manic guitar playing in a glorious fury. The early run of ‘Cruel’, ‘Cheerleader’ and ‘Surgeon’ cannot be topped, each one running with a fairly simple idea and then warping it into the kind of dark funky jam that only shecan. ‘Northern Lights’ is the most straightforward track here, being a guitar driven rock song, although “I saw the morning Northern Lights/Convinced it was the end of times” is hardly a chorus that’ll be bothering the charts any time soon.
From then on the tracks become more varied in quality. ‘Champagne Year’ has the sweep, but lacks any progression to really send this track into the league of some of the others around it. ‘Dilettante’ trips and stumbles its way round in a haze until the guitar adds momentum, yet still pales with the twisted disco stomp of ‘Hysterical Strength’ that follows. By the thumping close of ‘Year of the Tiger’ (“I always had a knack with the danger”) however, Strange Mercy should have convinced you that Annie being unusual and dangerous makes for one of this year’s more exciting listens.
- Richard Fitzpatrick