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St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (4AD) 

Annie Clark's music is a beautiful hybrid of folk, electronica and art rock—a tough combination to get right. But the multi-instrumentalist with the haunting voice has made waves with her pristine execution on Marry Me and Actor, two acclaimed albums that actually lose some luster in comparison to the new Strange Mercy.

Clark drops the veil slightly to bring more passion and intensity to her third album, making it the sort of achievement that cements an artist in the upper echelon of her craft.

Clark could easily toss off gorgeous, unadorned folk songs—and there is perhaps something to miss in the fact that she doesn't—but she instead strives for a more-experimental, artistic use of electronics and offbeat instrumentation. What that requires is directness and a sense of balance between vocals and the myriad other sounds; this is where Strange Mercy succeeds more so than Clark's first two St. Vincent albums.

Such inclusiveness could—and occasionally did, on 2009's Actor—sound cluttered, as if a group of unnecessary sounds conspired to weigh down an already-completed song. But here, the wide array of sounds has everything in its right place, from the thick, swelling electronics of opener "Chloe in the Afternoon" to the moaning-bass groove of "Champagne Year."

Strange Mercy has orchestral sweep, intimate vocals and a whole universe of sounds that demand attentive listening. But in topping herself, Clark relies on more than just musical complexity, delivering a record all the more compelling for its emotional heft and honesty.

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