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Annie Clark performs as St. Vincent. (Annabel Mehran)
Annie Clark performs as St. Vincent. (Annabel Mehran)

Music

Annie Clark's St. Vincent takes the long route to the hard truths Add to ...

In pop music, we conventionally associate sincerity with simplicity: three chords and the truth, preferably with acoustic guitar. Annie Clark (who performs as St. Vincent) momentarily plays to type when she tells us on her third album that she's had it with pretense. “I've played dumb when I knew better, I've tried too hard to be clever,” she sings, while strumming a very plain harmony.

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But Clark is clever, and her music isn't simple. Strange Mercy is full of puzzles waiting to be solved, disorientations to overcome. It's more like life than other pop music, and it got that way by putting together aspects of pop music that don't conventionally fit. It's an essay in recombinant sincerity.

The first track is almost a manifesto for the rest. The warbly keyboards, aggressive guitars and upright drum beats are all in time with each other, but seem like they're speaking different languages. Clark's airy unconcerned voice floats over the top, like the voice of a hostess who has deliberately filled her party with people who don't go together, just to see how the sparks fly.

The disc is full of stylistic mash-ups, marrying sugary vintage Broadway moves with dirty guitars, disco rhythms and funk outbreaks. Surgeon opens with a lush wordless melody, like something from a high-class fifties musical, gains drums and bass for the lyrics (about being cut open), before following an early guitar clue into a full-on funk explosion. Northern Lights follows a similar path, ending up with a synthesizer bit that sounds like a battle between wasp colonies.

“Did you ever really stare at me, like I stared at you?” Clark sings in Neutered Fruit, over a distant floating chorus, and again we seem to be getting to something vulnerable and essential. But then drums and guitar come in, all stubby and full of broad daylight, not apparently supportive of sentimental recollection at all. But isn't that how it is? The world doesn't actually go all soft-focus when we're having a moment, as Clark herself has to remember sometimes. “So I thought I'd learned my lesson, but I secretly expected / a choir at the shore and confetti through the falling air,” she sings in Champagne Year, her clear light voice crumbling, for once, at the bottom of her register.

Mostly she sings close to the ear, so close you can hear every intake of breath. Surely that voice, addressing us so intimately, wouldn't lie, or won't any more. “I've told whole lies with a half-smile,” she sings, and you feel that she's going straight from now on, but then the music bends and bursts in a way you don't expect. Her evident artifice challenges us to acknowledge what we might like to overlook: that every pop song contains artifice. Sincerity can be a pose like any other. The truth can resemble an illusion.

I'm tempted to think that Clark’s affection for the sheen and sunny promise of old Tin Pan Alley songwriting – which haunts the album from start to finish – and her own rather virginal voice, are the source of her investigations in the mucky backstories of pop-music truth. It's hard to listen to the young Judy Garland without hearing the layers of cunning premeditation that underlay what she was singing and how she sang it. Back then, that wasn't so obvious; expectations were different. Annie Clark, truth seeker, is sawing away the expectations of the present, which in my book makes her the voice of the future.

Strange Mercy

  • St. Vincent
  • 4AD


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