St. Vincent delivers dark beats in album

Nolan Krebs

Contemporary music, just like anything else that a consumer would pay for, exists in a fast-moving society under the expectation to be built, packaged and delivered as quickly as possible. We’d prefer the emotional utility we get from music sooner rather than later, a preference that might be reflected in the music we’re buying. The music that gives you gratification fastest seems to be what sells.

Annie Clark’s work under the moniker St. Vincent is a reminder of what there is to gain by taking your time with artistry and craftsmanship. The Texas-native studied jazz guitar at Berklee College of Music for three years before dropping out and later joining both the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Steven’s touring band.

In 2007, Clark released her first album as St. Vincent, “Marry Me,” which brought her positive attention for her unique arrangements of chamber rock (rock music with the implementation of classical instruments) and often-dark electronic counterparts. In 2009, “Actor” fleshed out Clark’s signature sound with bolder, lusher arrangements and led to collaborations with artists from Grizzly Bear to Kid Cudi.

“Strange Mercy,” the third album from St. Vincent, is another graceful and assertive step in the right direction. Complex, mysterious and clever throughout, the album delivers mastered imagery and personal narratives through impressive writing and instrumentation. Clark uses every tool in her arsenal with creative precision, and the result is a full, original sound.

The album dances on the border between electronic and rock-based, with tracks like the opener “Chloe in the Afternoon” utilizing creepy synth-lines to develop the mood and message. “Surgeon,” one of the album’s most ethereal tracks, is another example of Clark utilizing woozy electronics and an up-tempo beat to create something simultaneously dark and danceable.

Perhaps the strongest track on the album, “Cruel,” showcases Clark’s ear for creating a brand of chamber rock that’s both delicate and driving. Floating strings give way to the song’s infectiously catchy chorus, brought to life with Clark’s fuzzed-out guitar and plunking and Carribean-esque percussion.

The guitar remains an exceedingly important part of Clark’s musical repertoire, hardly subtle but never really crossing into self-indulgent.

Highlights other than the stuttered lines in “Cruel” include “Dilettante,” a wah-heavy track about, well, getting naked. Clark sings, “what’s so pressing/you can’t undress me?” This is one of many potentially sexual allusions on the album.

The insect buzz in the first half of “Hysterical Strength” and the jazzy fills in “Chloe.”

Fans of artists in the same vein as St. Vincent and old touring pal Sufjan Stevens will be drawn in and satisfied with the texture and depth of the record, but new listeners might not find their connection right away.

“Strange Mercy” is an album that challenges the listener; the subject matter is rarely happy-go-lucky, but it’s composed with an honesty and integrity that allows for a pretty intimate listening experience. If you’re hunting for music to help you zone out and relax, this probably isn’t your record.

To quote Ray Bradbury in “Fahrenheit 451,” a creation with genuine quality has to be able to “go under the microscope, where you’ll find life streaming past in infinite profusion.” That’s the appeal for an album like “Strange Mercy.” You can read into it as deeply as you’d like and find a delightfully human piece of artistic self-expression.