I’ll never forget the first time I listened to St. Vincent (the stage name of soon-to-be 29-year-old Annie Clark). I’d heard of her debut and wanted to like it after being told she named it Marry Me because of a line from Arrested Development, but I never got around to giving it a listen. It wasn’t until 2009’s Actor that I sat down with headphones on and tried the music on for size. As I sat, mesmerized by the angelic thousand-yard stare of her album cover, I lost myself entirely. It was singular and breathtaking. It was unique in a way that made it hard to imagine a follow-up. She had backed herself into a corner. She had created a work that left her with only two ways to move forward, continue with what works and risk accusations of sameness by those frequently accusatory rock critics, or even riskier, try and be entirely different once again.
A few songs into St. Vincent’s third studio album, it’s spring-water clear that she hasn’t tried to repeat what works; she hasn’t shied away from the challenge. Strange Mercy is a consistently bold attempt to be different. Track after track leads you one way, guides you down a path your feet have found before, and then, just when you’re used to going right, the music takes a sharp left. It’s uniquely uneven and always interesting if not necessarily easy to get hooked by. Clark uses the mini Moog, Arp and Wurlitzer of Bobby Sparks, the drums of Midlake’s McKenzie Smith, Daniel Hart on violin and her own soaring vocals to create tapestries of disparate yet not dissonant instruments and sounds. Her lush arrangements pack a prize fighter’s frequency of emotional punches and move smoothly from mellow drifting vocals to marching drums and electric trills.
Strange Mercy is an album that’s full of ambitious attempts to create rich tableaus that defy the expectations they create. Some work, and some don’t, but the ones that don’t will probably age well given that a few dozen listens won’t leave you bored. It raises a question I regularly consider when writing a review. What makes an album good? Or a piece of art for that matter? Is it being different or breaking conventions? Is it re-watch or re-read or re-listenability? Is it the measure of our visceral reaction? Is it the sum of our simplest enjoyment? I like to think it’s a balance of all the above—an almost impossible balance that’s rarely found and almost as rarely even reached for. St. Vincent reaches, and while she doesn’t quite find it throughout, listening to the reach is certainly more interesting than listening to an album that answers just one of the questions again and again and again.