No longer girlish in her vocal performance, Annie Clark grips a “horsehair whip” brought to life by her sinister voice that’s simultaneously desperate for intimacy and confident expressing it. The line “no kisses, no real names” makes it pretty clear that she’s playing the dominatrix here. All that’s missing is a black mask on the album cover, which is actually pretty similar to that in concept, when you think about it.
The song is a vulnerable declaration of her fear of monogamy, which is further elucidated on the very next track, “Cruel,” (although the video below suggests she may fear domesticity in general) possessive of pleasant kalimba notes and a tougher but simpler disco beat. But it’s this immediate thematic conflict that feels like a tremendous pay-off after two pretty good discs that only danced around such icky stuff, disguising it with inspiration that was mostly internalized or passive-aggressive (see: “Save Me from What I Want” and “Your Lips Are Red”).
“Strange Mercy” spills all that ugly struggle out in the open, ambition and insecurity textured by buzzing electronic loops and Clark’s compelling guitar playing, which rightfully finds its way to the forefront of the mix from time to time.
Much like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Clark is a singular talent enjoying the freedom of a well-supported project fixated on her abilities. Whereas Vernon’s unique qualities lie in his otherworldly singing ability, Clark’s focus around her guitar playing, which quite impressively ranges from George Harrison’s lush, golden tones to to Steve Albini’s angry flaying. Clark claims the latter artist as a major influence, and her use of his dissonant noises break against her lush voice and arrangements to create the principal conflict in her sound.
The album, recorded at Elwood Studio in Dallas, climaxes a bit early on the fifth track, “Northern Lights,” boasting a frenetic guitar solo that would catch even Marnie Stern’s breath. Although it leaves you with six slower, quieter songs, it’s actually a bit of relief after the murderer’s row that is the first half of the record, including “Cheerleader” and “Surgeon,” each with their own case of psychosexual lyrics.
The title track finds Clark cooing along until a breakdown, where her voice is as alluring, lovely and well-recorded as anything she’s ever put to track. “Dilettante”’s got more of those big, Albini-inspired guitar sounds.
Along the way are casual mentions of America, with which “Year of the Tiger” closes the album. In keeping with the previous lyrical content of this record, Clark echoes unease both lyrically (“living in fear in the year of the tiger”) and with a hesitant, airy synthesizer.
It’s a dizzying, impressive record, one full of exhilaration and shame, as Clark told Pitchfork last month. Also in that interview is an interesting sound bite, about her terrifying cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at Bowery Ballroom: “It’s not every day that you get to stand up onstage and unload every ounce of your misanthropic bile onto a crowd of people, and they’re like, ‘Cool! Hit us again!’”
The people have spoken once again, as “Strange Mercy”’s cracked #19 on the Billboard 200 albums. Keep that stuff – whether misanthropic bile, fear of uniformity, or issues of intimacy – coming, Annie. We’re waiting to for more. —Matt Carney