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St Vincent – “Strange Mercy” Review

St Vincent’s third full length album came smashing in at the end of 2011 and made a huge impact for me. Perfectly mistimed, mistuned, ugly and boisterous yet full of quirks and beauty within. It’s one of the best audio messes I’ve heard in age.

Opening with “Chloe in the Afternoon” we’re given heavy production, awkward drum beats, wavy guitars and shuffling melodies that are both catchy and eerie at the same time. St Vincent’s vocals are sublime too. Like much of the album, there’s an overlying arc and melody that hits on the opening listen and then you find several other melodies hidden away on further investigation and it’s what makes Strange Mercy as a whole, such a compelling album. Single “Cruel” (with a great music video) is about a straight as they come with a simple hook for a chorus line but the verses and codas are just free-falling angelic flourishes. It’s big, brash, overdriven and great.

“Cheerleader” is a lethargic grind in the best possible way. Lazy faded guitars and held back vocal delivery serves well for the big bursts of bleeding pyrotechnics for a chorus. The beat is almost like a stomping a foot to protest exactly that St Vincent doesn’t want to cheer lead anymore! “Surgeon” is more relaxed with a lot of 70/80’s synth work with some extra funky electric piano swirls. There’s a noise of a vocal/keyboard combination that sounds slightly like a choir that runs throughout the album but here it is used a lot to great effect.

“Northern Lights” is a great rock out track with some fantastic lyrics that I can really relate to. This is the freak out song of the album with crazy solo’s and frantic vocals. The title track “Strange Mercy” is the first quiet track on the album with a clunky drum beat and some lonely spacey keyboard works floating over airy guitars. St Vincent uses her light voice to great effect with precision too. “Neutered Fruit” has some excellent guitar flexing throughout and a real funky track. Not the most catchiest but it holds a different space to the rest with its more minimal approach for the vast majority of the song before it’s a huge finale.

“Champagne Year” is a spacey track that is held by ethereal ambience, humming bass and a kick beat for the first half before other instruments join. It’s very floaty and dreamy. “Dilettante” has a production where all the fuzz and echo is taken away, almost like the life has been sucked out the music and sounds completely different to everything else on the record. The rest of the album has a certain sustain on it but not here. “Hysterical Strength” reminds me of the TV show Knight Rider! There’s a certain 80’s cheese to the main theme of it – in a good way! It’s the chugging bass line and processed drums that do it. It is a fun and frantic track which tidies everything up nicely for the closer “Year of the Tiger” which is a classic St Vincent track and perfectly sums up the album with strange production, chords that don’t usually get placed together and time structures that aren’t the norm.

“Strange Mercy” takes three or four listens before you fully appreciate it. A lot of people say why doesn’t she strip down her albums like some of her acoustic performances. I say keep her pushing the boundaries of sonic sounds on record and let her tour acoustically and that way we get both sides of this fantastic artist.

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