Paint the Black Hole Blacker

St. Vincent has actually managed to get me interested in music recorded within the last decade.

Edited October 2020: It looks like the Austin City Limits videos have been removed from YouTube. If I remember correctly, the performances that struck me at the time were “Black Rainbow,” “Marrow,” and “The Strangers,” if you want to find them elsewhere. Even 11 years later, it’s still one of the best musical performances I’ve ever seen on television.

I didn’t hear about St. Vincent (Annie Clark) until someone posted a link to her video to “Actor Out of Work” and commented that she was a lovely woman who was opening her mouth so wide she looked unsettlingly anaconda-like.

A catchy song and a creepy video? Reason enough for me to try out the whole album, Actor. But it’s been at least five or six years since I’ve gotten really excited about music, so I didn’t listen to it more than a couple of times, and I didn’t think much other than “it’s interesting enough.” (And still, I’d occasionally find myself whistling some tune that had lodged itself in my subconscious, but I couldn’t quite place it).

Fast forward a few months to October, when I catch this performance on “Austin City Limits”:

I was completely captivated. And when she and the band segued into “Black Rainbow”, it was downright creepy: I knew this song; I’d been hearing it bounce around my head for months.

I think she’s just fantastic, the perfect antidote to everything boring and predictable about popular music. She composed the whole album in her apartment, so it’s not as predictable and soulless as the over-produced pop that has taken over everything. She’s not a pop star who picks up the guitar for a song or hops over to the piano for her big power ballad; she really knows music. And she’s clearly intelligent, but without making a show of it: you don’t get any sense of twee self-important irony that you get from musicians who are presenting themselves as an antidote to pop. Plus, the videos and live performances I’ve seen are every bit the bizarre bursts of creativity you get from musicians like, for example, Bjork, but she can turn it off and be perfectly unassuming and sane. Obviously, I’m completely smitten.

There’s a good interview from TV Guide where she talks about the process and her influences when writing songs. An even better and more insightful interview from ABC News describes her music as “sweetness and creepiness,” which is perfectly appropriate. The interview makes the great point that her music could come across as “precious” — Clark lists the orchestrations of Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty among her inspirations — but that she can also “truly shred on the guitar.” I don’t think the contrast is quite that simple — sweet-sounding songs with sinister lyrics is an easy gimmick, as Lily Allen’s remaining 3 out of 15 minutes are proving — but it’s a big part of what makes it work.

It becomes even clearer when you watch this acoustic performance of “Black Rainbow” with just Clark on guitar and Andrew Bird on violin. It’s a great melody that still sounds epic and cinematic even when stripped of all of its extra layers of production; it doesn’t depend on a gimmick to make it work. As orchestrated for the album, though, it turns into the pop song equivalent of the Winchester Mystery House: ending with St. Vincent tearing it up on an electric guitar in a climax that just keeps building before cutting off abruptly, like a staircase that leads to nowhere.

The title of this post is from my favorite song off “Actor,” the first track, called “The Strangers.” The album version really is best, since you get the background vocals and the keyboards and the full effect of the production, but this live acoustic version is almost as great: