The cover art for St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy features a mouth gasping for air through some suffocating white latex, an almost sinister image of fraught with danger, desperation but also breathtaking beauty.
This contrast is at the heart of Annie Clark’s third album. Her demur delivery belies devious lyrics and her sweet songs often subvert the idea of how a pop song should sound. The catchy “Cruel,” for instance, sounds radio friendly until you listen to lyrics like “They could take or leave you/ So they took you, and they left you.” Ouch. Add Clark’s dissonant guitar (which is always awesome on the album) and you have further complicated the cuteness.
“Cheerleader” is the title for a peppy number, but the tone is decidedly dour. “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more,” she sings over distorted drums and distressing rhythms, ultimately resolving into uplifting resoluteness.
On the double-edged “Surgeon”, she opens with almost helpless listlessness: “I spent the summer on my back. Above the tide. Staying just to get along.” But the heartbeat-bass and sea-like synths pick up and soon she’s repeatedly begging for the “best, finest surgeon” to “come cut me open.” It’s a scary, clinical way to look at love and love making, climaxing with a show-stealing, squealing solo from gospel keyboardist Bobby Sparks.
Back to the cover: St. Vincent’s first two covers feature Clark almost wide-eyed with innocence and ceramic delicacy. This time, the cover (which may or may not be Clark herself, she dodged the question recently on NPR) is intense, personal and close to the subject. She is no longer floating above her topics or over-embellishing melodies. She’s no longer “acting” or asking for someone to “marry her.” This time she’s in it, unmistakably pushing teeth through the record and deep into your memory.