St. Vincent's Strange Mercy is the kind of album that makes me hopeful for the possibilities of indie pop/rock again. Annie Clark isn't interested in gimmicks or style changes or publicity stunts, but instead just being true to herself. The evolution of her musical prowess throughout her past three albums is easy to follow and clear. In fact, many of the same things that have always been a part of St. Vincent's music find a place in Strange Mercy: The big beats, the distorted electric guitars, and the delicately delivered vocals. That's why its even more impressive to say that Strange Mercy is anything but predictable.
The album begins with "Chloe in the Afternoon", with some 60s Sci-Fi synth textures floating behind Clark's leaping vocal melody. The opening of the track sets up the primary dichotomy of the album: the catchy, femininity of Clark's vocals versus the hyper-masculine, prog-rock of her electric guitar playing. The theme of gender and identity run deep throughout the album, popping up in her desire to move beyond the gender roles that society has given her ("I don't want to be a cheerleader no more", "When I was young, coach used to call me the tiger"), while also admitting to the motherly instincts of her own ("Oh little one I'd tell you good news that I don't believe if it would help you sleep"). If you've seen the disturbing music video that accompanies the single, "Cruel", then you know what I'm talking about.
The other dichotomy that runs throughout the album is the one that balances unashamed catchiness and unbridled sonic experimentation. On songs "Northern Lights", Clark writes some of the catchiest vocal and guitar melodies you'll hear this side of her hit single "Actor Out Of Work" from her 2009 album - that is, until it gets to the synth "solo" that consists of a flurry of bleeps and bloops that attack your ears from all directions.
The result is an album that will make you sing along as much as it makes you stop and think. Everything from the clever songwriting to the inventive guitar leads on Strange Mercy exist with this framework and make this, without a doubt, St. Vincent's best work thus far. On "Champagne Year", Clark admits that she "makes a living telling people what they want to hear", yet to me, Strange Mercy is the kind of music that I never knew I wanted to hear. Perhaps that makes it another form of strange mercy in itself.