, February 25th, 2014 09:34
St. Vincent's eponymous title, coming as it does after Annie Clark's three prior solo albums and her collaboration with David Byrne, implies that the record will be a clear statement of intent. Fittingly enough for an artist with near-legendary creative control over her output, the title was a very deliberate decision. "I was reading Miles Davis' autobiography," she recently told Paste, "and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like himself … and that's why I decided to self-title this record because I feel like I sound like myself." It's an uncannily good time for Clark to sound like herself, too: the Byrne collaboration, the ever-so-slightly disappointing Love This Giant, may not have sold by the bucketload, but it certainly has introduced her work to a much wider audience. Good thing, then, that St. Vincent is the best kind of statement album: it's a sharp, laser-focused collection designed to show off Clark's ample virtues as a songwriter and performer.
Opening track 'Rattlesnake' sets the album's tone. Under a deceptively simple pattern of squelching 8-bit synthesiser, Clark narrates her lived experience of going for a nude bushwalk on a Texas ranch and encountering a rattlesnake. In the song this encounter has Clark shifting from a filtered sprechstimme to a full-throated cry of terror - "I'm not the only one in the only world!" - followed by one of her inimitably contained guitar freakouts. (In reality the experience concluded much less glamorously, with Clark running back, still naked, to the ranch house and taking a bracing shot of tequila.) In terms of the album, it becomes something of an origin myth, as she has explained to the Quietus' John Freeman: "So, the story sounded like a new kind of creation myth - where you don't come from anybody's rib - and that you are actually alone in the world, which seems more appropriate."
This origin myth sets up the key theme of the album: St. Vincent is not just about the self alone in the world, but rather about the paradoxes of being oneself in a world full of other people. In other words, St. Vincent explores the gulf between the private self and the performed self - particularly the self that new technologies allow us to perform. Thus the album juxtaposes the shockingly banal - 'Birth in Reverse' opens with the indelible couplet "Oh what an ordinary day / take out the garbage, masturbate" - with the kind of narcissistic exhibitionism that new technologies encourage - or, as 'Digital Witness' puts it, "If I can't show it, you can't see it". The point is, of course, that this might not actually be such a juxtaposition, that the exhibitionism that 'Digital Witness' skewers has become as banal as taking out the garbage and masturbating. There's nothing gimmicky about Clark cooing, as she does on 'Huey Newton', "Pleasure / dot loving / dot Huey / dot Newton"; social media is not treated as something to send up, but rather as the realm in which we now conduct our authentic lives, which renders the closing barb of 'Digital Witness' all the more damning: "Won't somebody sell me back to me?"
(It's worth mentioning that 'Birth In Reverse' and 'Digital Witness', both of which were released as advance streaming singles, work better in the context of the album than they do as standalone tracks. The anxiety-inducing, herky-jerk rhythms of the former follow on from the terrifying encounter at the heart of 'Rattlesnake', and the parping horns of the latter - which in isolation perhaps feels a little too indebted to Love This Giant - act as a palate cleanser after the magnificently dirty riff that descends from nowhere to close 'Huey Newton'.)
For all that St. Vincent showcases Clark's spikier, rebarbative side, it also contains some of her most touching songwriting yet. 'I Prefer Your Love' is a charmingly straightforward ode to Clark's mother that expresses a near-universal sentiment: "All good in me's because of you," she sings. (The implication is, of course, that she alone is responsible for her faults.) 'Prince Johnny', with its weirdly rubbery drum sounds, courtesy of producer John Congleton, is similarly touching in the way it describes Clark's relationship with a hopelessly self-destructive friend - the kind who would snort "a piece of the Berlin Wall" for a laugh and is always scheming to bed "sons of someones". Album closer 'Severed Crossed Fingers' might well be the most personal song Clark has ever composed, a lament for the bizarre life of a professional musician forced to spill her guts and drain her spleen every night while on tour. It's also, not coincidentally, one of the strangest songs she has ever released, with the dourness of her lyrics fighting against the helium-balloon cheesiness of the lead synth line. Despite the fact that it's missing her ferocious guitar chops, this song packs nearly everything amazing about Clark's musical output into one song: her sentimentality undercut by her cynicism, her formal inventiveness, the daring juxtapositions that make her work feel like a constant tightrope act.
If there's something to fault in an album as singular and determined as St. Vincent, it's that the tightrope act doesn't feel quite as dangerous here as it did on her previous albums. Where Clark's prior work allowed her room to try daring feats of songwriting and instrumentation - feats that might now have been flawlessly executed but which always felt necessary to try - St. Vincent's relentless focus seems to hem it in slightly. It's hard to imagine the Clark that St. Vincent performs coming up with a song as unhinged and ferocious as her 2012 standalone single 'Krokodil', or allowing herself the luxury of channeling Weimar-era cabaret, as she did on Marry Me's 'Paris Is Burning'. This process of continual self-editing and perfecting is, of course, something that St. Vincent explores on a thematic level, and it's matched on a formal level: St. Vincent is St. Vincent polished and buffed to a high sheen, shorn of all extraneous ornamentation. It's a grand statement of intent, an album that has Clark sounding - finally! - like herself; but also one that judiciously edits her messy musical past into a coherent narrative. St. Vincent's real genius is the way it manages to project an aura of perfection while simultaneously showing us its guts; it suggests that while the polished surface may not be a lie, exactly, it's based on a series of elisions that we're all uncomfortably complicit in.