My favorite songwriters, if not clear from these reviews, are, above all, thoughtful. They think about life and society and love and people and whatever. They do not just write to write, but write to figure things out. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) is one of those songwriters and Strange Mercy showcases this. Her songs use abstract stories and various characters as a way to reflect. Because of this, different people may get different things out of it — it is that rare adaptable record, fitting each listener in their own way.
There are stories of an affair (“Chloe In The Afternoon”), a man in prison (“Strange Mercy”), successful businessperson (“Year Of The Tiger”), Marilyn Monroe (“Surgeon”). “Dilettante” sees her comparing someone to a “party I heard through a wall / I’m always watching you through the keyhole.” Of course she is, that’s how she writes about all these things — Clark is clearly watching the world.
“They could take you or leave you / So they took you and they left you / How could they be casually cruel?” Clark wonders on “Cruel.” This leads directly into “Cheerleader,” where she sings from the point-of-view of the cruel, “I’ve told whole lies with a half smile / I’ve thrown rocks then hid both my arms.” Clark takes all these different angles, and leave you feeling like you’ve just been told of her personal discoveries about life. “It’s not a perfect plan / but it’s the one we’ve got,” she sings on “Champagne Year.”
St. Vincent, however, goes in the opposite direction with her music. The unbridled and unrestrained music act as a counterpoint to the thoughtful stories. Clark has become a pretty great guitarist, and she drops guitar spasms all over “Chloe In The Afternoon” and “Cruel,” a bizarre little solo on “Surgeon,” a rapturous build on “Northern Lights.” The joy of her music is absolutely evident, and her breathless vocals bring even more passion.
Strange Mercy consistently fits these two sides — Apollonian reason and Dionysian instinct — together perfectly. It makes a huge impression, one of the best records of 2011.