The internal struggle within Annie Clark’s work as St. Vincent has always been beauty vs. beast. On her sophomore effort, Actor, that was embodied by the digital smears and orchestral eeriness from producer John Congleton, as much as the roar of Clark’s guitar. Congleton returns for St. Vincent’s third LP, Strange Mercy, where the angel-voiced Clark once more goes toe-to-toe with ugliness—and even purges some from within. She’s pretty much calling for it on the nervy single “Surgeon”: “Best, finest surgeon / Come cut me open.”
Strange Mercy does for the arc of Clark’s career what Black Swan did for Natalie Portman’s: Engaging the darkness (rather than just acknowledging it) adds some flesh-and-blood humanity to an artist whose excellent output has nonetheless been marked by cold distance. She matches the cinematic sweep of “Cheerleader” with unprecedented pathos, while the title track seeks solace from real-world pain in storybook imagery and tender finger-picking. Clark remains lyrically fixated on archetypes and metaphors, but the heart beating beneath the characters of Strange Mercy’s “Dilettante” and “Hysterical Strength” is actually audible. And the words they speak have never been so well-chosen: In the opening measures of “Champagne Year,” Clark paints a poignant picture of broken hopes with absent choirs and missing confetti.
Strange Mercy isn’t an entirely joyless listen, though: “Cruel” two-steps to a gallop borrowed from Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere,” while “Northern Lights” begins as a chiming power-pop number before mutating into a fluorescent-streaked motorik rocker. Congleton’s toolbox is considerably pared down from Actor’s pocket symphonies, and while strings and horns occasionally creep in, Strange Mercy consistently makes do with little more than a conventional rock-band setup. All the better to display the record’s rougher edges and willingness to let its mistakes show—like a stray sigh near the end of “Surgeon.” That’s the sound of the beast making its way out of the beauty, as is the ripping, P-Funk ray-gun-synth solo that follows.