There’s no denying the creativity of Dallas’s Annie Erin Clark, a guitar virtuoso who records and performs under the name St. Vincent. Her 2007 debut, Marry Me—which followed her early gigs with Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens—was a solo creation of overarching pop collages. The 2009 follow-up, Actor, was even more ambitious, inadvertently offering proof that originality is no guarantee of great music. To her credit, Clark recognized the problem, openly complaining that she could play only a few of the album’s songs on guitar. Strange Mercy (4AD) feels like a considered regrouping. While still shambolic, there’s song structure and emotional weight beneath the cluttered surface. Much of the record—“Chloe in the Afternoon,” “Cheerleader,” “Surgeon”—seems frank and confessional, as if the “actor” of the previous album has been pushed aside in favor of a more traditional singer-songwriter (though one with an exceedingly mannered vocal style). Still, Clark remains primarily a guitarist, playing electric bursts with a buzzing fat tone that have earned her comparisons to King Crimson majordomo Robert Fripp. Her fretwork dominates on the dance-oriented “Cruel,” the eruptive “Northern Lights,” and the haunting “Dilettante,” helping them cut through the piled-on layers of aural distraction, which often feel like an afterthought—or a cover-up. Strange Mercy is Clark’s best record yet and a sign of where she might take things if she stopped trying so hard to impress.
From the September 2011 Issue Subscribe