There’s a fine line between ambitious experimentation and pretentious navel gazing, and no one around these days discerns the difference between avant-rock adventurism and artsy-fartsy self-indulgence better than St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. Sure, she might cultivate a persona that’s a little cutesy in coy interviews and fashion mag press photos, but, when it comes down to her craft, Clark is as serious as they come. The way you can tell that St. Vincent’s not about just putting on airs is that there’s always a sense of purpose to Clark’s art’s-for-art’s-sake music so that it never feels like an intellectual exercise that’s just in her head. An honest-to-goodness iconoclast who follows her own muse and trusts her instincts no matter the risk, Clark makes difficult, provocative art-pop on her own terms without fretting about whether there’s a demographic for it, with the result being that her high-concept, high-degree-of-difficulty work has found an ever-expanding audience that’s creeping into the mainstream — heck, St. Vincent’s even debuting videos on Huffington Post instead of the music blogs.
On Strange Mercy, Clark continues to sharpen and finetune her act, coming off bolder in her aesthetic, yet more immediate and intimate as a performer. The new album features some of the most direct pieces Clark’s come up with, while she still carves out enough breathing room for her active imagination to think big conceptually. So maybe there’s nothing quite as instantly appealing as “Actor Out of Work” this time around, but “Northern Lights” comes pretty close: One of the more up-tempo numbers on Strange Mercy, “Northern Lights” builds up with some slinky feedback and jittery rhythms before crescendoing in melancholic thrills you feel in the pit of your stomach. Even more impressive is the single “Cruel”, which is an unlikely amalgam of styles that together sounds like pop music from another dimension, mixing and matching pretty string arrangements, breathless vocals, and robotic funk. Above all, what “Cruel” proves is that a catchy song doesn’t always need an obvious hook, because St. Vincent shows how a feeling of anticipation can be as visceral as any power riff payoff, as Clark plays the tease by pulling back just enough when you expect the melodies to continue ascending.
It’s as if Strange Mercy is making the case that high art can have a popular dimension — and the reverse, too, that pop culture can be high-minded and artful. Like peers such as Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, Clark creates challenging music that doesn’t go over your head even though you realize there’s more going on with it than you can wrap your mind around. That’s the feeling you get when you become absorbed in the way St. Vincent blends hard rock and soft electronic components on the tone-setting opener “Chloe in the Afternoon”, which uses rough-and-ragged instrumental parts to accentuate vocalizing that’s as smooth and easy as Clark gets. Intro’d to a distantly strummed guitar before rising to a peppy rhythmic chorus, “Cheerleader” gets you to go with its ebb-and-flow, while the herky-jerky “Dilettante” plays with out-of-the-box orchestration, like sampled backing vocals and synthesized guitars, to throw in a few out-of-the-blue twists-and-turns every time you think Clark is mellowing out and settling in.
Equal parts hip-swaying and heady, the album’s centerpiece “Surgeon” works on many levels at the same time, packing enough of a punch to pique your interest on first listen, while beckoning you to dig deeper. Of all the tracks on Strange Mercy, “Surgeon” offers the most to chew on musically, a pastiche of experimental genres that embraces ambient electronics, free-form jazz, and funked-up Krautrock. Thematically, it’s also daring, as Clark strings together vivid, eerie images that complement and heighten the ominously alluring undertones that define her sound. Sure, the track’s suggestive first line — “I spent the summer on my back,” Clark croons in a voice as alienated as it is sultry — is probably the one that’s burning ears, but it’s the graphic chorus of “Best, finest surgeon / Come cut me open” that’ll stay with you and leave you thinking.
But it’s not just the tracks with the best bells and whistles that are the most compelling, since St. Vincent’s quieter, more poignant pieces on Strange Mercy are just as captivating. So while the virtuoso guitarist has proven she can pretty much out-technique all comers, Clark bests many of her contemporaries here by imbuing her eccentric music with unlikely affect and emotion you wouldn’t expect from such an aesthetic-minded sensibility. But just beneath the stylized, stylish art music surface, Clark conveys that it’s a sense of humanity and soulfulness drives her innovation, particularly on sparsely orchestrated vocally-oriented songs like the title track, with its synthetic R&B, and “Neutered Fruit”, which splits the difference between a hymn and a torch song. Along with the fragile “Champagne Year” — on which Clark is at her most self-examining and vulnerable, singing, “I make a living telling people what they want to hear” — these songs form the heart of the album smack dab in the middle of it, turning down the volume on the instrumental elements and employing them in a way that draws out how all the nooks and crannies of Clark’s voice get across complex textures and varied moods. When they’re front and center in the mix, Clark’s lyrics all but beg to be read into, like when she croons, “Did you ever really stare at me?” on “Neutered Fruit”, basically daring you to pay closer attention.
In reality, though, that line from “Neutered Fruit” is only a rhetorical question, since there’s no doubt that a lot of eyeballs and ears are focused on St. Vincent right now. And Clark’s definitely making the most her turn in the spotlight, not just by putting on a good show, but by getting you to look to make you think. Like the best art, Strange Mercy lets you know that it means something, though what the point is is as much open to interpretation as it is a matter of its author’s intentions, which is how it should be.