First is that while I consider myself a huge fan of St. Vincent, I really only like about 50% of her music. The songs run hot and cold with me, and I’m usually indifferent to at least half the songs on any particular album. But the songs I like, I adore. Actor is my favorite of her albums, even though at this point I treat it as a 5-song EP — but since those five songs include “Black Rainbow,” “The Strangers,” and “Marrow,” that ranks it as one of the best albums ever recorded. And if I’m being honest, I really only like one song from Strange Mercy — but it’s one of my favorite songs ever:
My second confession is that I never really “got” David Bowie, even though I’ve always wished I could see and hear what everybody else seemed to. My first exposure to him was Let’s Dance, and I just didn’t (and still don’t) see the appeal. And then when Labyrinth came out, it was already established that he was some kind of superstar. It really wasn’t until Seu Jorge stripped the songs down in The Life Aquatic that I could appreciate how many really good songs he’d written. Of course by that point, I’d already missed all the years of being exposed to his Persona, which is as much a part of the show as his music.
I mention the first part because St. Vincent is an outstanding album by any measure. Actor is still my favorite, but St. Vincent is probably her best. Most of the reviews, and Annie Clark herself, mention that the album’s more confident and self-assured. Usually I dismiss that kind of thing as meaningless music review talk, about as meaningful as the language used by wine connoisseurs. But it really comes through here. St. Vincent sounds like someone who doesn’t have anything to prove.
She’s an excellent guitar player, and it kind of became her schtick, undoubtedly because of the novelty of it: a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice suddenly pulling out an electric guitar and just wailing on it. I don’t think she ever used it as a crutch; it was never like early Van Halen albums that’d just screech to halt for the sake of “Eruption.” But each song still had the sense of and here’s the guitar solo. (And don’t get me wrong; that’s a big part of why “Black Rainbow” is still my favorite of her songs). But the new record feels as if she said, “Okay, I’ve pretty much got the guitar covered for what I want to get out of it.” Now it’s part of a new sound consistent throughout the album: a drum kit, minimoog, and guitar with none of them drawing too much attention to itself.
In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast, Clark described the sound as taking analog instruments and processing them to sound digital and artificial. Actor experimented with a thematic (almost diegetic?) sound as well, and it’s why I love it — my crush on St. Vincent was sealed the moment she described making a rock/pop album inspired by the music in Sleeping Beauty — but I also have to admit it’s a little bit “on the nose.” Take something sweet and melodic and put a dark twist on it: paint the black hole blacker. St. Vincent feels less like an intellectual exercise.
But what really makes St. Vincent work as a complete album is one song: “Regret.” Right at the point when the album could run out of steam and have me reaching for the controls to jump back to “Birth in Reverse,” she launches into a second half that feels as if it has the potential to go anywhere. She’s never been at a loss for a good hook, but dropping everything down to just her guitar and a drum kit instantly evokes Houses of the Holy for me. Then “Bring Me Your Loves” works better than it has any right to; is this turning into a Moog-rock dance album? Apparently not, since “Psychopath” tumbles backwards through 80s pop and then “Every Tear Disappears” turns it into a Berlin record. Combined with the visuals of the “Digital Witness” video and the album cover, it all seems to exist as part of a late-70s sci-fi movie (Clark described the look as “near-future cult leader”) that’s predicting the 90s nostalgia for the 80s, transmitted into 2014.
Which is why I mentioned the second confession: St. Vincent makes me feel like I’m getting the 70s art-rock experience that David Bowie’s fans got but that I missed out on. It’s not as explicit as anything that, say, Janelle Monaé’s doing (or Ziggy Stardust, for that matter) but it does all feel like a concept album. Finally I get glam rock I can call my own!
Best of all, it seems as if my favorite songs from her earlier albums were just a kind of prologue for what’s coming up. They were displays of talent with frequent flashes of genius here and there; this is a burst of creativity. Pulling in disparate influences, experimenting with all the different things she can do with her voice (she doesn’t sound the same on any two songs, much less the same as she did on Strange Mercy), and combining a good old-fashioned hook with an art-rock high concept.
And the whole thing’s got her sense of dark humor running throughout. There’s a laughably defensive article on Buzzfeed saying that the album’s fine and whatever, but St Vincent just doesn’t get the internet, man. (“…extremely condescending toward the diverse range of people who regularly use social media.”) It’d be silly enough because “Digital Witness” perfectly describes the always-connected loneliness for those of us who watch movies or listen to albums while simultaneously trying to come up with clever blog post titles, or now judge every memorable sight based on whether it’s best suited for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s even sillier when you combine it with “Huey Newton,” which — according to Clark, since the lyrics are kind of impenetrable — is about being in a hotel tripping on Ambien and falling down an Internet browsing rabbit hole.
That sense of humor and self-awareness is what bumps my admiration into shameless fandom. There are plenty of artists whose work I love but would never want to meet them in person; Annie Clark, on the other hand, seems like she’d be fascinating to meet. Hear her talk about guitar technique and pedals and her artistic influences, and it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. Watch her in a video or a live performance and she’s straight-up weird, putting everything into the creativity of a performance. Her teaming up with David Byrne was a surprise to me but seems natural in retrospect: if there’s anybody I can see putting on a giant suit and twitching and shuddering across a stage, it’s St. Vincent. But then she effortlessly turns it off. In interviews, and even between songs, she comes across as completely devoid of pretension or any sense of self-importance. Not as a persona but as a person.
I’ve already listened to the new record more times than I can count, and it’s got me excited about what’s coming next.