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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

St. Vincent, Without the Wink and Smile

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Annie Clark's first records as St. Vincent tempered her sometimes dark songwriting with generous dollops of mirth and whimsy. Her 2007 debut, Marry Me, made good on the quirk and preciousness promised by her résumé, which included gigs with Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree. Clark's 2009 follow-up, Actor, took a more sinister lyrical turn, but compensated with eccentric string and woodwind arrangements that were so cartoonish they sometimes seemed to be playing her truculence for laughs. Fully enjoying those records required being in on her joke, but on St. Vincent's new Strange Mercy, there is no joke. It's a record that doesn't apologize for its ugly thoughts, or attempt to defang them with cutesiness.

“I wanted to make sure that it sounded really distinct from the other records,” Clark explains. “I chose for it to be heavy and hard-hitting. I just wanted the whole experience, including the live experience, to be powerful, overwhelming and maybe a little scary at times.”

As part of that conscious reinvention, Clark scrapped her old backing band and built a new one. With returning producer John Congleton, a studio visionary with a knack for unnerving sounds, Clark scaled back her usually frilly arrangements to better play up the harshness of her distorted guitar and the immersive low end of her synthesizers—a heavier treatment that flatters her most lurid batch of songs yet.

Like the album's cover image of a suffocated mouth, its lips curved upward as if in appreciation, Strange Mercy's songs teem with violence and sexuality. “Chloe in the Afternoon” begins the album with depictions of bondage and sadism. “Cheerleader” opens with the lustful confession, “I've had good times with some bad guys.” The title track builds to an unfinished assertion that could either tease a threat or a domination fantasy: “If I ever met the dirty policeman who roughed you up/ No, I/ I don't know what.” She'll what? She'll do the same to him? Have him do the same to her?

The songs seem to mark a devilish turn from a musician that some listeners might have once dismissed as a member of the Zooey Deschanel/Miranda July school of insufferably indie, but Clark says her new material isn't out of character.

“That darkness has always been in me, but I used to dress it up in ways that were more cute, or coy,” Clark says. “I don't feel I have a desire to write songs with a wink and a smile anymore. That's not to cast a shadow on the music I've made in the past—it was exactly what I wanted to make at the time—but the approach just isn't as compelling to me anymore. Rather than coming out with actual aggression, I would subvert it, and make it just 'a little bit of poison with the candy,' so to speak. But now, I don't know, I just want to play guitar.”

Though Clark describes Strange Mercy as her most honest, personal record yet, she avoids commenting specifically on what its songs are about, saying only that they were written after a period of turmoil.

“2010 was the year of the tiger, and it was a real snake of a year, a real tough one,” she says. “But I'm definitely more grateful for music now than before for going through it. I've obviously always loved music, of course—find me a person who doesn't love music and I will find you a potential serial killer—but music means so much more to me now, because I've seen how this thing can heal you.”

St. Vincent plays the Pabst Theater on Monday, Oct. 3, with opener Cate Le Bon. Doors open at 7 p.m.