opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
St. Vincent’s exhilarating new album sounds inevitable, as if this thing has been waiting to spring forth from the moment Annie Clark first held a guitar. Any notion that it had to be is of course a fallacy, nothing more than a summation of the impeccable creative decisions an artist has made over the years. The logical trajectory that traces a line through each St. Vincent album is simply a testament to Clark’s canny self-awareness. During the arc of her career, she’s replaced early missteps (preciousness, woodwinds, cabaret) with natural strengths (ferocity, synths, rock). On St. Vincent, Annie Clark has carved her art down to its mighty, knotty core.
This process of reduction began with 2011’s outstanding Strange Mercy, which juxtaposed gurgling synths and piercing guitars with pristine vocals and indelible melodies. “Cruel,” its highlight, proved Clark and her slanted pop could in fact become a global phenomenon, at least on an alternate Earth. (I want to go to there.) At the time, Strange Mercy felt like an arrival for St. Vincent. Turns out, she was merely in transition: the ruthlessly taut St. Vincent makes its predecessorappear flabby and loose. St. Vincent – so jagged and sinewy – doesn’t lack lush moments. But they go as soon as they come – with maximum impact. The album’s resplendent tracks (“I Prefer Your Love,” “Prince Johnny,” and “Severed Crossed Fingers”) seem earned by comparison.
Though these songs are mostly autobiographical – Clark insists they are – the spare poetry of her words places her personal accounts in a stylized version of reality, one that regularly approaches the mythical. Her world is but a Charlie Kaufman-esque stage, where Clark pauses for peals of audience laughter in her living room (“Birth in Reverse”) and later provides a lover with a forgotten line of dialogue from behind the curtain (“Severed Crossed Fingers”). A modern-day Pinocchio snorts coke in a bathroom stall (“Prince Johnny”). Animal attraction is made literal, four-legged and canine (“Bring Me Your Loves”). A naked jaunt across the hinterlands of West Texas transforms to a retelling of Genesis (“Rattlesnake”). She even personifies social media, swallows the Earth in a single gulp, and then becomes its cult leader (“Digital Witness”). That is, until she’s buried alive in a “shrine of ones and zeroes” (“Huey Newton”). On “Severed Crossed Fingers” Clark says “the truth is ugly,” but her fantastical take on the truth feels so alive and, contra to her lyric, lovely too.
Throughout the whiplash swings of snarling drama and gentle storytelling, we get an all-access pass to explore Annie Clark’s brain, in all its hyper-literate glory. There are nods to Pointillist art, a Lorrie Moore short story, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, a tragic son of British royalty, the music of Randy Newman and David Bowie and Bob Dylan. Such references, never showy, are woven subtly into her sardonic authorial voice. In a recent interview with Studio360, Clark explained the eponymous title of her fourth LP by paraphrasing Miles Davis: “[He] talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like yourself. And I thought, you know what, I sound like myself on this record.” How’s that for an understatement? Annie Clark stands astride St. Vincent, a colossus in total – and thrilling – command.
I should mention one more thing: St. Vincent contains some killer songs, eleven to be exact. “Rattlesnake” launches the album with pouncing funk and an ecstatic guitar solo. Spooky synths are met with handclaps on the hopping and ethereal “Every Tear Disappears.” “Huey Newton” descends from breezy simplicity into brutal, near-chaos. Swirling and furious, “Bring Me Your Loves” crackles with brief vocal crescendos and reverberated guitars. Lead single “Birth in Reverse” – an arch and buoyant track, whose title refers to, in Lorrie Moore’s words, a “deadly maternal metaphor” – finds Clark doubling her breathless vocal melody with sludgy riffs. The mid-tempo brass strut of “Digital Witness,” the lone reminder of Clark’s recent collaboration with David Byrne, cedes to the album’s sturdiest pop chorus. Though St. Vincent rages so often and surely, its softest moments are the most intoxicating. “Prince Johnny” envelops the listener with a haunting choral background track as it unfolds its tale of woe and lingering regret. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, “I Prefer Your Love” is a lullaby, which Clark sings, with aching gratitude, to her mother.
The best, as the cliché assures us, is saved for last. St. Vincent ends with “Severed Crossed Fingers,” three minutes and forty-two seconds of astonishing beauty. Over smeared, soft-rock synths and tinkling harpsichord notes, Clark delivers, with a slight vocal echo, an unwinding and increasingly devastating melody. We don’t need words to tell us her chest is an empty cavity. Calling “Severed Crossed Fingers” a highlight wouldn’t do it justice. It’s a promise of further brilliance. The same goes for St. Vincent. Annie Clark continues to soar, the crest of her trajectory still out of sight. A