Clark offers not only some of the most dynamic, exciting pieces of her career, but of all twenty-first century music.
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
How’s this for a compliment? Rolling Stone recently deemed St. Vincent “the most thrilling solo artist in indie rock right now.” It’s no small feat to receive this level of respect from one of the best-established cultural publications of all time, even though hyperbole is inevitable in any sort of art criticism. Yet praise for St. Vincent, real name Annie Clark, simply cannot be overdone; over the course of three albums, Clark has proven herself to be arguably the most unique, exciting, passionate, and genuinely incredible musician to break out in the twenty-first century. Her fourth album St. Vincent, possibly her best yet, continues in its predecessors’ unparalleled excellence, expanding on past motifs in just the right ways. It combines the best qualities of her solo output, as well as those of the disappointingly tepid Love This Giant, her collaborative album with personal idol and musical legend David Byrne, into a robust, fiery, emotionally heavy package with no filler to find anywhere and only genuine ideas explored.
Of course, outside influences can be identified as well: Byrne in the funk rhythm of jolting opener “Rattlesnake”, the percussive stutter of the great “Every Tear Disappears”, and especially the brass section of “Digital Witness”; Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in the overpowering, monstrous last two minutes of “Huey Newton”; Pink Floyd in the background ambience of the devastating, downright gorgeous “I Prefer Your Love.” But, more than anything, Clark’s own catalog informs St. Vincent without dictating it. The wonderful third track “Prince Johnny” employs the same sort of grey, uneasy haze of Strange Mercy gems like “Surgeon” and “Dilletante”, yet aches even more earnestly than much of that album’s thoroughly yearning tunes; the shell-shock dynamic shift of “Huey Newton” is an improved take on Actor highlight “Marrow”; the acoustic guitars surrounding album highlights “Regret” and “Psychopath” recall the early days of Marry Me. Really, St. Vincent is a distillation of Annie Clark’s musical past, simultaneously a reminder of where she came from and where her music is heading.
Musically, St. Vincent succeeds by expanding upon previous instrumental tendencies; its lyrics also stem from the same seeds as on older albums. As with Actor and especially Strange Mercy, the lyrics here are deeply personal despite the frequent cloud of metaphors and imagery surrounding them. The figurative language is often so thick that, although it’s clearly sincere and close to Clark’s heart, its true meaning can be hard to interpret. For instance, when Clark sings “Summer is as faded as a long sicada call/memories so bright I gotta squint just to recall” on “Regret”, it can be difficult to establish whether she looks back upon this time with shame or positivity, although the song title very blatantly suggests the former. Elsewhere, the words of “Huey Newton” simply sound like an assortment of disparate images tossed together, seemingly unrelated turns of phrase that only coexist to sound eerie, a job they do perfectly.
Of course, when lyricism is this personal, true feelings inevitably shine through. Clark’s words on “Severed Crossed Fingers” and “I Prefer Your Love” make no effort to conceal their woe and desperation, imbuing these tracks with a heartache unmatched in her catalog to date. “The truth is ugly, well/I feel ugly too” and “Spitting out guts from their gears/draining our spleen over years” pierce the former track, ensuring that its melancholy and poignancy don’t go missed; “I prefer your love/to Jesus” is actually quite straightforward coming from Clark on the latter track. “I Prefer Your Love” is indeed deeply personal — it’s about her mother’s battle with disease — and its somber strings emphasize just how heartfelt this slow-burner is.
However, despite the blatant feelings of these two tracks, there is a moment on St. Vincent when the lyrics bring the music down just a tad. The sarcastic, preachy lyrics of “Digital Witness”, albeit humorous in their irony, aren’t quite up to par with the rest of Clark’s poetry, and the out-of-place brass section dominating the song sounds like the stronger side of the still weak Love This Giant. Released as the second single from the album, “Digital Witness” marks the first instance of Clark’s output feeling like a mild letdown. Yet, despite its somewhat silly, yet well-intentioned and socially relevant lyrics, and its borderline camp instrumentation, the song’s a grower; it might be this album’s weak point (or maybe that’s “Bring Me Your Loves”, a tune so jarring that it takes some time to accept, yet, naturally, it too grows into greatness), yet it’s still a fantastic, invigorating scorcher of a tune, and it shines even more brightly in the context of the album.
It’s interesting that “Digital Witness” benefits so greatly from its placement within the album, because it follows the best song present, the overwhelming, no-looking-back “Huey Newton.” Although the lyrics on this track sound meaningless in sequence, Clark delivers them in a manner as spooky as the underlying instrumental, a minimal mesh of muted OK Computer synths, distant digitalism, and straightforward percussion. As if this weren’t menacing enough, Clark completely reverses the song with two minutes remaining, converting it from a relatively tranquil meditation into a stomping, larger-than-life, so-heavy-it-could-be-metal anthem in what feels like a millisecond. The transformation is so quick it can make hearts skip beats and incite listeners to jump out of their seats in shock, and it may damn well be the single most rewarding moment in the St. Vincent canon to date.
Clark seems to be fully aware of just how special “Huey Newton” is: the disgustingly distorted guitar part guiding its metallic second half is none other than the fierce, unidentified-until-now riff used way back in November 2013 to initiate the St. Vincent promotional campaign. It’s that menacing, dirty jam that played under the European tour announcement on her website, a placement that might imply that it would be the intro to the first single released from the album. Yet on “Birth in Reverse”, no such riff was to be found, although equally funky and distorted guitars form its excellent instrumentation; furthermore, no other singles contained the riff, and the ninety-second previews that iTunes offered for each song showed no evidence of its presence on the album. It’s as though Clark did all she could to preserve the sheer joy of the surprise 2:38 into “Huey Newton”, the moment when she proves herself a master of unexpected, cathartic shifts in mood and sound, and an artist unrivaled in innovation and individuality.
The majority of, if not all, St. Vincent fans will cherish St. Vincent. It demonstrates Clark reimagining everything she’s done in the past in its best possible form, resulting in not only some of the most dynamic, exciting pieces of her career, but of all twenty-first century music. On St. Vincent, Clark sounds thoroughly modern and of her own kind while she picks delicately from the past for influences. That she sounds this new while still wearing old colors completely justifies anything and everything good anyone, whether fan or fledgling critic, casual listener or Rolling Stone writer, has ever said about her.