Strange Mercy

Will someone please remove this baby from my face?

Annie Clark has built a career exploring the darker side of things conventional or sweet. She’s a slight, attractive, well-groomed and well-dressed artist with a penchant for taking awkward glamour shots, making job applicants cry, and filming housewife hostage videos. She accompanies her careful voice with space-funk synths, blown-out drums, face-scorching fuzz, and Wagnerian progressions that never resolve. Last year’s well-received third full-length album as St. Vincent, Strange Mercy, was no different. Several months later, I still can’t get over the title track.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

The song begins with Dilla-esque drums that lurch along, conjuring images of slo-mo poppers on downers. The instrumentation is restrained and sparse for all the atmosphere. Only a guitar, the drum loop, and a modest helping of synths support Clark’s vocals. The narrative here is quite moving, though it’s tricky to pin down the details. At first it seems like something along the lines of Taken by Trees’ “Too Young” (whose Tough Alliance remix is one of my favorite reinterpretations of the last few years)–-a song I always interpreted as a lullaby sung at a distance to a child given up for adoption, a blessing for a life the singer is not supposed to meddle with but for which she cannot help being concerned. Clark’s lyrics here seem to describe perhaps a sister who isn’t able to take care of her young sibling. The second verse paints a beautiful, dense portrait: “Oh little one, your Hemingway jawline looks just like his, our father in exile for God only knows how many years. So when you see him, wave through double-pane.” The father appears to be in prison, only reachable through thick glass and short telephone wire.

The chorus is a concise promise: “I’ll be with you, lost boys, sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you.” But whatever “I’ll be with you in spirit” message is sent seems like a half-hearted gesture. The progress the song has made dissolves into the instrumental bridge’s mysterious and detached synth theme.

When the rhythm cuts out for a brief interlude, Clark takes the attentive occasion to define the song title: “Oh little one, I’ll tell you good news that I don’t believe if it would help you sleep. Strange mercy…” A live drum roll punctuates the emptiness. A synth rises in anticipation. Before we know it, Clark has raised the stakes for this second verse.

When the beat drops, her clean guitar has become a barking lawnmower spewing diesel across the summer-hot sidewalk. The bass synth oscillator has gone low and wonky like wind struggling through a car with just one window open. The sinister pace of the song grinds the sudden momentum through the weighted down gravity of the arrangement. In a brilliant double turn, Clark belts an open-ended vendetta: “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up…” And just as soon as she’s snarled that desperate threat, she caves in on the follow-through, admitting, dreadfully, “Oh, I don’t know what.” When the chorus returns, it feels like a spasm of resignation, a hopeless farewell breaking down beat by beat. She has invoked a judgment and, knowing she’s powerless to enforce it, she flees.

The return of the bridge and its gloomy melody leaves us in some sort of queasy status quo that’s all the more so with that second synth running the line hard right with its taunting, teasing tone. The strangeness of “strange mercy” seems to suggest that we often find ourselves led to the path of kindness not because we’re agents of altruism, but because we lack a capacity for the action we should or would prefer to take. We excuse the brutality of an abusive police officer not because we forgive the transgressions, but because we’re powerless to retaliate against police force (not to mention that we are highly unlikely to summon the will to vigilante justice). We keep our children from the shock of the adult world, not solely because we want to protect and nurture them, but because we’re unable, when confronted with their innocent minds and faces, to admit to them the fear we’re held hostage by on a daily basis. And, perhaps, when we find ourselves unable to be the people we think our family deserve, we leave them so others might do a better job, not entirely because we believe our siblings or heirs are more fortunate with what others might pass down, but because we are unable to confront sufficiently whatever keeps us from responsible, caring attachments. And this isn’t necessarily a judgment of cowardice. It’s that we’re bold and weak, graceful and clumsy. It’s that we have complicated stories. St. Vincent latches onto that here and explores it a remarkably moving way.

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