Album review: St. Vincent, ‘Strange Mercy’ (4AD)

September 21, 2011

The St. Vincent buzz began building with Marry Me, the 2007 debut by doe-eyed, Dallas-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark, and she became a full-fledged indie-rock darling with “Actor” in 2009. But her Fantasia meets electronica with a bit o’ Bjork act is wearing thin on her third album Strange Mercy.

More than ever, Clark’s music sounds like what the pretentiously artsy, supremely self-conscious theater-club set embraces after they graduate from high school and “Glee.” And she essentially admits it, screeching, “I’ve played dumb when I knew better/Tried too hard just to be clever… I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more!”

This is what happens if you cross the insufferably cute Zooey Deschannel with the Natalie Portman of Black Swan. And it’s hard to really buy the character Clark is playing as a convincing villainess.

Much has been made of the artist’s recent fondness for Big Black covers, and rare is the reviewer who’s been able to resist quoting the lyrics of “Chloe in the Afternoon,” which borrows the title of a classic of French New Wave cinema, and finds Clark brandishing a “black lacquered horse-hair whip.” But the dominatrix outfit clearly is just a costume—the singer is no Nico, much less a Polly Jean Harvey or Teri Gender Bender—and the anger and rage allegedly burbling under the surfaced and acted out amid the needlessly complex and fragile musical fussiness of songs such as “Surgeon,” “Hysterical Strength,” and “Cruel” ultimately seems overwrought and fabulously insincere.

On the four-star scale: 1.5 stars.

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