WHEN SWITCHING on St. Vincent's most recent release, Strange Mercy, take some time to imagine these perfectly constructed scenes: a dimly lit restaurant brimming with blithe conversation, the room permeated by the smell of smoldering herbs and wild leeks; an elysian churchyard on Sunday, pocked only by a gospel choir's singular, resounding voice as it carries down the block on a crisp, autumnal breeze; or a quaint New England home flanked by sand dunes, its shingles weathering beneath a quilt of salt air, woven with the sinewy threads of a foghorn's drone. Now, with the introduction of a rogue note, imagine all of it spontaneously awash in unrelenting flames. Stop and notice the sway of the fire on its senseless path of destruction; cautiously light a cigarette on an outlying flare, and walk away. Grab a cup of coffee, pick up your dry cleaning, and carry on with your vapid existence until there comes another catastrophe to which you can ultimately remain indifferent; this is often the code of conduct for St. Vincent's music, though it's not necessarily intended that way.
"I'm prone to panic attacks and anxiety, so my music is much like everyday living," says Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent. "Things can be fine and sunny, and all of a sudden, clouds roll in. And that's so embedded in my subconscious, it actually takes effort for me to step away from a song and say, 'No, let this one be pretty. This one here? It's just fucking pretty.'"
And thus, Strange Mercy rolls right out from under 2009's Actor—that ever-toppling Jenga pile of arranged beauty—while bearing the faint traces of swing and snark found on 2007's Marry Me. Though Strange Mercy has an undeniably lawless and oversexed electricity, its lacquered lips also utter words of desire and demise. For instance, the song "Surgeon" begins as a shimmering quaalude daydream, upheld by a hook drawn from Marilyn Monroe's diary, pleading, "Best, finest surgeon/Come cut me open!" However, in true St. Vincent form, it's not long before the track's spinal cord is snapped, inducing an anxious fit of squealing guitar lines and liquescent keyboards stretched over a fervent hiphop beat.
In fact, nearly all of the songs on Strange Mercy register a very prominent kicker box pulse. According to Clark, this stems from working with producer John Congleton (Okkervil River, Explosions in the Sky). "He's so great with dealing with the low ends. One of the main things we decided while making the record was to make sure that every song had a groove." Notably, this concept is alive in the fantastic "Dilettante"—with its finicky kick-and-snare palpitations and bellowing synths—and the all-out domestic dispute of opening track "Chloe in the Afternoon."
"The song is in the key of Q," says Clark, with a laugh. "But I think that as long as people are locked in and bobbing their heads, you can do some pretty weird stuff and it still feels palatable. And when that beat comes in, it's really satisfying."
Amid the dancehall grooves, with Clark being the guitar savant that she is, Strange Mercy possesses an intuitive flow—unlike past records, each song here was conceived as a bare coffeehouse number—as well as technical prowess. For the most immediate example of the latter, refer to the second minute of "Neutered Fruit," for a sublimely ripping and gritty guitar solo that is unbearably suave. When asked for technical details, Clark takes a breath and careens into explanation: "I'm playing a 1967 Harmony Bobcat through a Death By Audio Interstellar Overdriver pedal through a late '70s Silverface Princeton amplifier. Yes, those things make it sound like that."