St. Vincent - St. Vincent Review
Posted by David Hayter on 02.25.2014
To her critics, St. Vincent is easier to admire than to love, but on her self-titled fourth album Annie Clark delivers killer grooves and irresistible hooks to match her avant-garde poses.
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
1. "Rattlesnake" 2. "Birth in Reverse" 3. "Prince Johnny" 4. "Huey Newton" 5. "Digital Witness" 6. "I Prefer Your Love" 7. "Regret" 8. "Bring Me Your Loves" 9. "Psychopath" 10. "Every Tear Disappears" 11. "Severed Crossed Fingers"
St. Vincent is a torrential force of nature. This may come as a surprise to some. Her studio output suggests an aesthete and an intellectual: the type of musician who takes her work (and by proxy herself) deadly seriously. Strange Mercy, her disturbing and darkly affecting third album, was a triumph of challenging intricacy and not an exercise in carefree immediacy. However, this is only half the story, seen live Annie Clark (St. Vincent) is unkempt; a wild child who’ll dive into the crowd at a moments notice, dance across stage, tell jokes and shred the life out her guitar.
In 2012 Annie Clark took a break from her solo work to tour and record with David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame). Much has been made of this collaboration and its impact on Annie’s sound. In truth, St. Vincent is too wily an artist for any veteran to alter her direction of travel. Instead, the opportunity to take a break from writing her own material and performing her ferociously draining live show helped Annie to recognise the value of taking it easy. She recently admitted that she needed a break from the intensity of being St. Vincent and benefitted from a dose of free wheeling fun.
Whether her yearlong sojourn with a post-punk legend had any tangible impact on Annie’s self-title fourth album is impossible to say, but she has certainly lightened up. The social commentary remains barbed and St. Vincent is still a fiendishly clever project (how many other bands would come flying out the gate with line this high brow: “I see the snake holes dotted in the sand, as if Seurat painted the Rio Grande”?), but the mood has changed. The shift is slight, but significant. The herky-jerky angles and the collapsed accordion aesthetic remain in place, but (whisper it): St. Vincent is accessible.
Approachability is not inherently a good thing. Obtuse know-it-all bands don’t write easy music for a reason. Stripping away those prickly edges and intimidating structures can reveal a hollow shell. Mercifully, with every layer St. Vincent peels away, she trades stomach-churning alienation for unadulterated enjoyment.
The fact that Annie Clark is a bad arse virtuoso and closet guitar hero has been the music industry’s dirty little secret for a decade a more. Album openers “Rattlesnake” and “Birth In Reverse” suggest that she’s done hiding. The former builds from skittish white funk burbles towards a satisfyingly craven explosion of screeching guitar noise. The later is a punchy and impetuous ode to apathy that rides a sneakily sharp riff that The Strokes would bite Annie’s arm off to own. There’s still plenty of disconcerting carnage. “Birth In Reverse” feels like it’s folding in on itself as isolation warps Annie’s narrative toward a deliciously disjointed finale. Better still, where once Annie aimed to unsettle her audience, she’s now content to make them laugh: “Oh what an ordinary day, take out the garbage masturbate”.
Brilliantly, this new sense of freedom and joy exists firmly within the world St. Vincent has been creating across three fiercely unique albums. “Regret” mixes a dash of glam stop with some rip-roaring Fang Island style riffage and the kind of nightmarish electronic wonderland we last saw on Sufjan Stevens’ Age Of Adz. Scratch beneath the surface and plenty of marginal sonic touchstones can be found, but Annie never feels indebted. Her hooks and her needling vocal are wholly her own. “Prince Johnny” mixes immaculate lyrical precision with wonderful allegorical illusions – St. Vincent blurs the lines between fantasy and reality before diving headlong through the looking glass with a serene, whirling, vocal hook.
St. Vincent’s music has always been hard to place and over the course of an hour finding any kind of stable footing is impossible. Stylistically, she’ll shift between refined R&B delicacy and bruising alt-rock superheroine status on a single track (“Huey Newton”). Lyrically, she as deft as ever, exploring a theme that seems impossible nuanced for a pop record: meaning and reality in an online world.
The sensational snapping funk of “Digital Witness” searches for truth in an age where every action in posed and calculated to reflect an imagined or constructed online identity. After all, in world where everything is shared, what is the point of existence outside of the public gaze or, as St. Vincent puts it: “what’s the point of even sleeping, if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me, what’s the point of doing anything?”
It’s a scary thought in a world where society and identity are become less concrete. Still, if this all sounds too much like an exercise in chin stroking introspection don’t worry – “Digital Witness” is an honest to goodness banger, built for the dance floors and not late night laptop enslavement.
St. Vincent never turns her brain off, but her hips never stop swaying either. “Bring Me Your Loves” is as close as this album gets to a throwaway cut; a blend of neck snapping beats and squirrelly futuristic guitar work It’s a riot, juking and jiving to the very last, and so is “Psychopath” - St. Vincent’s grandiose swirling 70s pop masterpiece that could only have been made in the here and now. Across the entire album St. Vincent pinches poppy flourishes from every period; warping them to her grand design without sacrificing her potency or the carefree glee that great pop music should embody.
Up until this point Annie Clark’s music could be dismissed as severe. She would follow her instincts and artistic impulses - jutting out in alienating directions and cramming in content at the expense of her potential audience. Both detractors and admirers knew she would get in her own way; doing too much, too well, allowing for no easy access points. The trade off was simple: her work could be hard going, but the rewards justified the investment.
St. Vincent the album bucks this trend dramatically, without in anyway compromising the Annie Clark ethos. This is still complex, challenging, strange and thoughtful music, but, more than anything else, it’s an unabashed pleasure to cosume. Annie has created an album that is not only beautiful in concept, but thrilling, visceral, and addictive in reality. No longer an abstract entity to be admired, St. Vincent is now a brilliant and fully formed pop star.
The 411: St. Vincent has often been easier to admire than to love. Her music was routinely brilliant and darkly poignant, but it required serious investment. Listeners had to trust that the effort they put in would be rewarded in the long run. Annie Clark’s self-titled fourth album changes the parameters of her career entirely. Her music is still exists in a world of her own making and remains fiercely cerebral, but, for the first time; it feels thrillingly accessible. St. Vincent is producing a blend of visceral immediacy and serene beauty normally reserved for her live shows. Expect strange detours, head scratching sonic marriages and complex lyricism, but also brilliant, vibrant, hip shaking pop music. Innovative, intellectual and easy – three words that don’t often fit together, but perfectly describe St. Vincent and her self-titled fourth album.