The cover for St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy depicts a muffled mouth that’s probably being suffocated, a playfully dark illustration of the new album’s title. It’s also the first St. Vincent cover that isn’t a straight-up headshot of frontwoman Annie Clark, perhaps a strange kind of mercy itself. Read through a couple reviews of her previous albums, and you’re sure to find a critic or 12 fervently analyzing Clark’s photos gracing her debut Marry Me and, especially, her sophomore album, Actor. Musicians slap mug shots on albums all the time, and formally, Clark’s have been pretty unremarkable: her face, solid background, inscrutable expression. Meanwhile, what’s remarkable about the pictures — why they were likely analyzed in the first place — is elided, since it’s not an appropriate subject for critical analysis: Annie Clark is ridiculously good looking.
Problematizing beauty and our response to it has been one of St. Vincent’s most defining features and most successful endeavors. A lot of artists have tried to expand the definition of beauty beyond its normal boundaries, revealing the beautiful in the nontraditional, the subaltern, and the unaesthetic. Clark, on the other hand, seems more concerned with expanding the expressive range of the traditionally pretty, narrowly defined as her neck. In performances and videos, she carries her delicate good looks with passivity that’s both unnerving and deliberate, accompanied by a stare so exaggeratedly blank it threatens to turn feminist theory on “the gaze” inside out. Likewise, the compositions on her first two albums used the common sounds and tropes that we’ve come to associate with unchallenging audio pleasure, which, for the most part, they give us — yet that pleasure’s usually accompanied by a sense of uneasiness, dread, or at least discordantly cerebral constructions. All of that required control, detachment, and self-consciousness. St. Vincent was posing. So it’s no paradox that, with her face covered up, Clark’s delivered her most sincere album.
According to Clark, she initially fleshed out this album’s batch of songs on her guitar — a reversal from her usual process of learning how to approximate a track live after it had been pieced together in the studio or on her laptop. The orchestral pop flourishes that dominated her previous work are noticeably infrequent, leaving more room for Clark’s unshowily overachieving — or in the case of lead single “Surgeon,” flauntingly confident — guitar work (which should be fun to see live). Clark and co-producer John Congleton have added layers, weird (but not too weird) textures, and manipulated most of the tracks’ sounds nearly to the point — but not quite — of overproduction, but Strange Mercy still has more room to breathe than any St. Vincent album. Compared to Clark’s previous work, “Champagne Year” sounds nearly a cappella, even though her voice is backed by what sounds like The Postal Service on quaaludes.
For all its concrete sonic departures from St. Vincent’s previous work, Strange Mercy’s most noticeable change is hard to pin down: you can’t hear a smirk. These songs may or may not be written from the perspective of characters; if they are, though, they’re delivered with more empathy and less winking analytical detachment than on Actor. Maybe it’s her new songwriting process, the immediacy and physicality of her hands on the strings. Instead of musically undercutting her lyrics, the music now mostly complements them. On “Surgeon,” when Clark sings “best finest surgeon/ come cut me open,” her guitar breaks into an equally suggestive staccato riff, a pointillist porno-funk. The title track, about a “little one” who’s been “tired for a long, long time,” has sympathetically slow strums, hushed at one point to what’s almost a plucked variation on “Claire de Lune.” A second later, the riff turns aggressively crunch when Clark sings, “If I ever meet/ The dirty policeman/ Who roughed you up/ I… I don’t know what.”
Yes, she actually fake stutters, but it works. Throughout the album, which gives more prominence to her singing, Clark tries out vocal tricks with nice results: the strategically placed sexy “uh!” in “Surgeon,” the Björk-aping and hiccups in the first moments of opener “Chloe in the Afternoon,” the sad sound of her voice’s low range bottoming out when she says “fallen air” in the sad song “Champagne Year.” They’re all as skillfully composed and executed as her riffs, adding to Strange Mercy’s emotional coherency. In the album’s best moments, Clark shows us she can be complex without relying on contradiction. But she doesn’t do so often enough. As advertised, Strange Mercy lets us off more easily than it should, but without the promised strangeness.