Music at Mars Hill: The Emotional Contradictions Behind Strange Mercy

Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

In a recent interview Ryan Reed from Paste Magazine did with Annie Clark of St. Vincent, Annie had this to say about the meaning behind her new album’s title:

The first song that I wrote for the record was the song ‘Strange Mercy,’ and once I had that line, in the context of that song, a ‘strange mercy’ is really wanting to protect someone, not giving them the whole truth. It’s a maternal thing, a maternal mindset, I guess. But then I kind of took that coupling of words and thought, ‘Huh, what other kinds of strange mercy are there? What other ways do you have to be cruel to be kind?’

St. Vincent’s recently released album has been on constant repeat in my headphones and I think I may have figured what makes the album so compelling: contradiction. Songs like “Cruel” are inescapably catchy, while still being unmistakably experimental. While Annie’s delicate voice takes the lead in many songs, her ferocious electric guitar-playing refuses to be pushed aside. Acting in complete contradiction of each other, they trade off like two opposing forces fighting for attention within her.

The lyrics of the album push the theme of contradiction even further, speaking of being “casually cruel” and the “strange mercy” that we must be cruel to be kind. Later on the album, Annie sings “I’ll make a living telling people what they want to hear/I tell ya, it’s gonna be a champagne year”. In this line from the song “Champagne Year”, Annie suggests that her music is often telling people what they want to hear rather than what is true; that we’re going to make it and everything’s going to be okay.

The words and themes of the album couldn’t help but get me thinking about the God we call “Father” and His utterly bizarre love for us. He has so much compassion and mercy toward us that while we debate and argue about the future of humanity, He has given us just enough truth to lead us not into complete faith or complete knowledge, but instead, complete hope in Him and the things He has in store.

Often, I’ve even found that my experience of the Almighty can often take the shape of contradictions; God is merciful, yet He is just; God is omnipotent, yet He is humble; God’s kingdom is here now, yet it is in the future. But even more so, St. Vincent’s album is a reminder of the contradictions that exist within myself that shape my understanding of God and the world around me. Like Annie’s powerful electric guitar leads, there is this force inside me that wants to be assertive and aggressive in what I believe and want to do with my life. Meanwhile, there is a melodic voice that sings and speaks a more discernible truth about love and grace inside of me. Like in the film Tree of Life, its the way of nature versus the way of grace and every day we must choose.

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