Three months ago, I wrote a piece claiming Iron & Wine’s album, “Kiss Each Other Clean” was my favorite album of 2011 at that point. I certainly wasn’t lying. I loved that album then and still do. It would still rank among my top three at this point, three-quarters of the way through 2011. That said, Strange Mercy by St. Vincent is my favorite album of 2011 as September winds down.
I was first introduced to St. Vincent in 2009 as I graduated high school. I saw her face all over Pitchfork, saw Actor get a killer rating, and when I went to my local record store I couldn’t resist picking up my own copy. Popping the CD (I wasn’t cool enough for vinyl in 2009) into my car stereo, I was taken by surprise.
You see, as a recent graduate of high school, I wasn’t exactly introduced to much true indie music. And if you remember 2009 well, you’ll remember that the whole “Indie music with pop hooks, electronica influences, orchestral arrangements, and fart-mimmicking guitar” wasn’t what every indie artist was doing.
So naturally, I fell in love with St. Vincent. It was cool. It was challenging. Plus, Annie Clark is so intimidatingly beautiful it makes me a bit sick. From Actor, I fell backwards onto the jazzy Marry Me. I love both records, but there are brief moments on them that strike me as too scattered to add, thus they take away from the record as a whole (Oddly enough, the end of the opening track on each album is my problem.)
Now, over two years later, I sit listening to Strange Mercy. Clark claims she wrote the record in Seattle by piecing together guitar riffs. I haven’t actually checked out the back story of the writing of the record much because the music speaks for itself.
When I first heard “Cruel” is when I got that so-anxious-can’t-freaking-wait-for-this-album feeling. It’s catchy and different from anything I’ve ever heard from St. Vincent. Her diction on the chorus still boggles me a bit (sounds like she’s saying “crawl” instead of “cruel”) but it ultimately makes the song more alluring. Add the funky guitar work and techno-influenced instrumentation and this song is irresistible.
“Surgeon” failed to have the same effect on me. I liked it, sure. But I wasn’t surprised by it at first. Now seeing how it fits into the record, I really love it, but it’s only a good song mixed in with other great songs.
“Strange Mercy” and “Champagne Year” really show Clark’s songwriting knack. Of course she can’t put out a full album of stadium-filling goosebump-inducing songs, but they certainly are her strong suit. The end of Marry Me‘s “Your Lips are Red,” “Land Mines” and Actor‘s closer, “Just The Same But Brand New.” They come easy to a musician as professionally trained as Clark. She knows how to mix in one or two without using them as a ploy to sell a ton of records *cough* Kings of Leon *cough* (Just to clarify- KOL are in no way comparable to St. Vincent. They just fill their albums full of U2 knock-off songs to make a buck.)
Songs like “Cheerleader”, “Northern Lights”, and “Neutered Fruit” recall something nostalgic within me. They are all so “90s indie”, so it makes no sense why these songs sound nostalgic to me. I wasn’t even listening to music seriously then (I was under 10 years old). “Cheerleader” is so loud and in charge when the chorus stomps. “Northern Lights” is the closest St. Vincent has ever come to garage rock with a butt-kicking synth freakout at the end. “Neutered Fruit” is just a sexy, creepy groove that consistently builds momentum as Clark grows more frantic with her voice begging, “Did you ever really stare at me? Did you ever really care?”
Another song that fits into the retro-indie vein is “Hysterical Strength”, a really driving, percussive track that explodes into a celebration when Clark’s guitar ends the song so the album closer, “Year of the Tiger.”
It’s starts as a slower-burner- a unsettled, spacey verse and a major key chorus. It strikes as a first person account more than Clark’s other songs. “I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie now my kingdom for a cup of coffee,” Clark sings in a reminiscing nature that is rare for her listeners. Next she’s growing more and more frantic saying, “Oh America, Can I owe you one?!” By the time the song comes an end, the cocky, drunken swagger has infected you as well.
The record is near perfect, certainly St. Vincent’s best release (which speaks volumes.) It’s cohesive, intriguing, and mysterious. Somehow, through that mystery, Clark seems more honest on this record than ever before. I gave it a 4.6/5 rating on my music-review Twitter account (@minimusicreview). Do yourself a favor and pick up Strange Mercy.