“If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up, well… I don’t know what,” sings Annie Clark on Strange Mercy’s title track, centrepiece, and best song. It’s the most earnest and unflinchingly honest we’ve ever heard Clark sound; she’s been unafraid to tread the darker recesses of her neuroses on her past releases, but usually it’s sardonically or with a barely-concealed smirk. On “Strange Mercy,” and consistently across the album, Clark is more divulgent of her true personal feelings than we’ve come to expect, and she’s created a dense collection of songs to reflect this atmosphere. This makes Strange Mercy her most difficult album to penetrate and judge to date, but it also means that some of the rewards on multiple plays are the biggest yet.
Throughout Strange Mercy Clark casts herself in several roles, from the S&M-loving fetishist of opening track “Chloe In The Afternoon,” to the maternal roles she seems to inhabit on other tracks. No matter what method of divulgence she’s using though, all of these characters have one thing in common: feelings of worthlessness and even helplessness. On “Cheerleader” she tells us how she’s fed up of being a “dirt eater”; on “Champagne Year,” where she is seemingly taking the role of a fortune teller, she “makes a living telling people what they want to hear” – including herself; and “Neutered Fruit” is the tale of a woman finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that her level of obsession with a partner was not equally reciprocated. Even on the deceptively upbeat and devilishly catchy “Cruel,” when Clark for once doesn’t take a first-person perspective, she’s admonishing the central character for being a pushover.
All of these stories are part Clark, part fiction, and open for interpretation. This is certainly an interesting and engrossing portion of Strange Mercy, but what makes it all work is the part that is entirely Clark: the music. The range of instruments used on Actor has been pared down; there are no more sprightly bursts of horns, and additional strings are fleeting. While this is something of a loss, it has allowed Clark to focus on other aspects, most notably her voice, which she places centrally and clearly on tracks like “Strange Mercy,” “Champagne Year” and “Dilettante,” and she turns in her best vocal performances yet.
Clark has talked about creating a “sexy low end” for this album, and the bass in every single one of these songs helps to simultaneously make the songs poppy and dark. This is no more evident than on the concluding “Year Of The Tiger,” where the thunderous kick-drum and sludge-like synth bass are only used in portions, but when they interject to sell a line like “Oh America, can I owe you one?” the effect is thrilling. This is just one of the many ways in which Clark has morphed her sound to fit the mood. Consistently she proves that she is in complete control here, and even if some parts may seem frivolous (the gaudy white-noise guitar solo that concludes “Northern Lights,” the unnecessary layers of fuzz and other random noises on “Hysterical Strength”), these are here because they are what Clark wanted, and these songs could have existed no other way.
On “Dilettante” Clark confesses how the object of her affection is “like the party she heard through the wall,” and in some ways that seems to be the relationship that Strange Mercy has to its predecessor. Actor was a riot; an effervescent and colourful outing that painted Clark as witty, attractive, and multi-faceted – exactly the kind of person you’d want at your party. Strange Mercy is the lonely next door neighbour who could be just as popular if only you took the time to get to know her. Instead she is left to turn introspectively, which might not produce quite so brilliantly chromatic stories, but they can be just as – if not more – compelling.