"Best, finest surgeon/Come cut me open," croons Annie Clark, not long into her third album as St. Vincent.
The Dallas-bred singer-songwriter is pleading for an experienced hand, but she's the one wielding the scalpel throughout Strange Mercy, an arresting, vividly realized collection.
After her breakout sophomore effort, 2009's Actor, Strange Mercy (again produced by the tireless John Congleton), Clark once more mines the netherworld of her mind, blending violent imagery with an acute sensitivity to emotional temperatures.
Unafraid of the ugly close-up, Clark, who lives in New York full time and retreated to the West Coast to focus on writing these songs, excels at providing images as intoxicating as they are unsettling. "If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up/I'll be with you lost boys/Sneaking out where the shivers won't find you," goes a line from the title track, its sentiments worthy of Tom Waits.
That clash between attraction and repulsion extends to the sonics as well.
More so than her first two records, the 28-year-old Clark ferociously mixes bursts of plush beauty and atonal, peculiar effects: Neutered Fruit is borne aloft on a gorgeous choral loop, with a squelchy, fuzzbox guitar effect straight out of Peter Frampton's playbook serving as a bizarre counterpoint. The cumulative effect is odd and overwhelming as Clark's vocals achieve a poetic sort of creepiness: "Did you ever really stare at me/Like I stared at you?"
Confidence confronts the listener at every turn on this spare, 40-minute album. Having broken through the indie rock clutter with Actor, Clark has seized an opportunity to make an grandly idiosyncratic statement. Already renowned as a fearless guitar virtuoso -- her live performances are spectacles of raw instrumental prowess -- Clark has steadily matured as a songwriter. Although she prefers to speak in metaphors and potent allusions, it's easy to see why someone like art-rock fountainhead David Byrne would want to collaborate with her. (The pair is finishing up an album for release next year.)
Through and through, Strange Mercy feels like an artist totally and completely coming into her own (which means, just maybe, music writers won't have to lean on the "She-used-to-be-in-the-Polyphonic-Spree" crutch anymore). Clark may yearn for a sharper, steadier hand to excavate her complicated interior life, but as Strange Mercy demonstrates, she would be hard-pressed to find one better than her own.