St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Released September 13th, 2011 on 4AD Records
Produced by John Congleton
Peaked at #19 U.S., #117 U.K.
The late Oughts were an era of growing notoriety for St. Vincent. The band, named for a line in Nick Cave’s propulsive “There She Goes My Beautiful World”, is the arms-length moniker for multi-instrumentalist and former Polyphonic Spree cultist Annie Clark. She’d put out two well-regarded albums (Marry Me and Actor Out Of Work) and had actually charted with the second one. Feeling pressure and suddenly morbidly conscious of being dopamine-tied to the constant buzz or ding of the phone in modern existence, she decamped to Seattle, unplugged, and followed some advice that Nick Cave had provided in an interview once: being a musician, especially a songwriter, is a full time job and you should treat it like one. To this end she managed to get a steal on a studio owned by Death Cab For Cutie members that was closing and spent a month in self-enforced isolation. She stayed at a nearby hotel and spent 12 hours a day writing and recording in the studio. Other than her creative time, she ran in the morning and ate dinner alone at night.
The result was Strange Mercy, a peak of indie rock in the early 10s. Every part of the record feels at once minimalist and maximalist: the songs are filled with airy atmosphere, space blending into space pushed by waves from the corners inward, each note imbued with presence and volume. They are songs that linger innocently around you before tapping you on the shoulder and then slapping you in the face. Besides the dynamic shifts, the most enthralling moments on the record (besides the buzzing bass lines) are Clark’s fierce guitar squiggles, which strike like lightning and leave your ears ringing in their wake. She can play a lot of different instruments, but she can play the hell out of the guitar.
The album would be a breaking moment for Clark’s career. It would begin a run of albums that would see her master the indie world and then embrace an alternative disco-queen persona before going full-in on a Seventies dirty soul pastiche in honour of her jailbird stepfather’s record collection. “Cheerleader” and “Cruel” are still staples on what passes for indie radio these days; “Surgeon” still contains the best use of a Marilyn Monroe line in alt rock. At the time she said of the album that she didn’t think it would end up being her best album but it was still a great album; while her best album is up for grabs (I honestly might go in for Masseduction in the end) she was right about it being a great album.