My favorite concert moment of 2011 so far occurred in May, when St. Vincent performed the songs of Big Black at the Our Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom. I knew Annie Clark as the demure mind behind Actor and Marry Me, albums that were just a bit too pleasant, so boy was I shocked when Clark tore through a blistering version of "Kerosene," and boy am I glad she brought some of that fiery ferocity to her new album.
Strange Mercy begins with "Chloe In the Afternoon," where a breathy Clark and her fuzzy guitar (the album’s true hero) do a bit of a call and response, accompanied by a clapping drumbeat, followed by the synth-reliant "Cruel" and the album’s best song, "Cheerleader," which starts sparse and ends wrapped in feedback. Clark sings that she’s done playing dumb, that she doesn’t "wanna be a cheerleader no more," and what you see is what you get, or in our case, what you hear is what you get.
And what we get is urgency, not only from that near-perfect opening trio, but also on the lo-fi "Northern Lights," "Hysterical Strength," which dissolves into a mess of noise-funk (in a good way); and closer "Year of the Tiger," a seemingly minor track until the song takes a turn two minutes in, when Clark begins chanting, "Oh America, can I owe you one?" before returning to its original path. The misdirection is exhilarating, because that moment never came in St. Vincent’s previous work. It makes Strange Mercy feel more vital, and more importantly, less calculated. In the past, it felt like Clark was making pretty music just because she could, but she’s now doing it because she has to.