Album three for Annie Clark, ‘Strange Mercy’, isn’t a step back from the highly acclaimed ‘Actor’, but neither is it really a step forwards. While touched with more than a few moments of her particular brand of genius – Clark’s latest long player also stretches the discordance between how good Bowlegs instinctively knows it to be artistically – compared to how satisfying it actually is on repeated play.
Stylistically it’s different enough to previous offerings to appear as though it’s an evolution: The heavy emphasis on orchestral instruments across ‘Actor’ has been tempered here by a switch to more dominance in Clark’s scratchy, fuzzed-up guitar parts (she is a superb guitarist) combined with lots of introspective moog-synth layers and some cross-genre experimenting that sees jazz taking a bigger role, as on the opener, ‘Chloe in the Afternoon’ – a song about single-motherhood that walks the tightrope between being wilfully child-like, and overbearingly childish. Indeed, it’s a brave track to open with, being one of the most experimental on the whole disc: something that might put newcomers off before they give the rest of the album a chance.
Which would be a shame, especially as tracks two and three, the current single ‘Cruel’ and ‘Cheerleader’, are arguably the most succinct and listenable alt-poppy delights on the whole collection.
Yet there’s an underlying sense that here is a woman still in search of how she really wants to impart her message. Despite the apparent biography to be found in certain lyrical journeys, it’s an album of exorcism on a couch, rather than in the soul; which would be fine, were it not that Clark wears the demeanour of a woman with a lot more emotional resonance still to give. That said, ‘Strange Mercy’ has enough gold dust sprinkled lightly on the crust to heartily please already-believers in Annie’s musical landscape.
A tantalising snapshot into the psyche of an artist growing ever braver, getting stronger, getting better, and ever closer to a likely place as a future behemoth in the industry; Annie Clark is currently sharpening her tools in preparation for the gentlest form of world domination. Criticism is only relative. Clark is a formidable talent. Put into that context, things for St. Vincent really aren’t too bad at all, in this enjoyable bridge, on the way to much bigger things.