40:05 min • Loma Vista / Republic • February 24, 2014
John Preston reviews
St. Vincent’s star has been steadily rising for nigh on eight years. Each one of her three albums has surpassed the other for originality, song writing ability and scorching self-possession. This, her fourth and the first to be self-titled (and appropriately at that) continues with the trend. Although it may not actually be better than some of 2011’s seductive and quietly threatening Strange Mercy, it is a more human and bolder work, and marks the introduction of an unfiltered honesty that previous albums kept closer to their chest. She has taken both musical and physical elements of the biggest and most successful pop stars of the mid-eighties and early nineties – Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson – and compressed them into an art rock template where David Bowie continues to dominate Annie Clarke’s pop cultured psyche. But then again the eponymous naming of the album adds credence and a confidence to how much this sounds like it could only be a St. Vincent album. Every second of it could have only come from Annie Clark’s own pen, her lips and guitar.
A lot of the songs on St. Vincent are un-coded, straightforward story telling songs relating to Clark’s own experiences. Some of the songs are harder to decipher, more abstract, and on occasion surreal. If there is an underlying theme here, it is how life is experienced right now by someone who has been online for the majority of their adulthood, but whose childhood predated the age of social media. It is the outlook of someone who has distanced herself from from the option of only living so much of life in front of a computer screen.
The opening track ‘Rattlesnake’, and cloudily synthetic ballad ‘I Prefer Your Love’, which sits in the centre of the album and quite sensibly between two of the most frenzied and odd tracks, both fall into the first category of this vivid storytelling. The metallic and brittle shake of ‘Rattlesnake’ recounts Clark’s walk through a seemingly empty desert, and how she removes all of her clothes due to the heat, as well as a desire to be free and connect with both the moment and the surrounding nature. The sound and then appearance of a rattlesnake provokes a fight or flight sprint back to safety. This is a very loaded image of course, phallic maybe and certainly mythical, and the raise in Clark’s vocal inflection towards the end – “I’m not the only one!” – as well as the dryness of the rhythm helps bring to life both the thrill and the fear.
‘I Prefer Your Love’ really does wear its heart firmly on its sleeve. Annie Clark nearly lost her mother to illness recently, and with lines like “wipe the blush and smudge from my cheek and wonder what will be become of your little one” this is a last lullaby for a child whose parent means more to them than any spiritual or religious figurehead could. There is no trickery with this track. It’s a beautiful song, and although the rhythm and melody of the verses sound a little like the verses of ‘Ashes to Ashes ‘ (and it could easily be the missing song in a quartet of Patrick Leonard written Madonna ballads), compared to Clark’s discography thus far it is surprising for its truthfulness and sincerity.
Following last year’s sometimes successful collaboration with David Byrne, the brass funk that dominated Love This Giant makes a brief reappearance on the exhilarating ‘Digital Witness’, a better and more memorable track than any that appeared on Giant. Along with the eccentric and genre shifting ‘Huey Newton’, this song explicitly questions the point of some social media and specially that of sharing information that really requires no further spectators as well as the reasons why such validation is required for just about everything. Such as liking another person’s status when that status tells you that they are in their garden. “If I you can’t show it, you can’t see me; what’s the point in doing anything?” echoes Clark. ‘Digital Witness’ is an example of the albeit subtle move to songs that are as catchy as can be, subversive lyrically still but brighter and bolder than before. In another lifetime it could have been a Kid Creole and The Coconuts track. The astounding ‘Huey Newton’, which follows a sedated lo-fi R&B first half, suddenly breaks down irreconcilably into a guitar-led psychosis-fuelled second half, initiated by nights of winter time loneliness with only Google Search for company.
‘Bring Me Your Loves’ is probably the most outwardly and bracingly strange moment on St. Vincent. It has an addled and fevered sweat and atmosphere with marching drums, multi-tracked and obnoxious harmonies frustrated by the “I took you off your leash but I can’t make you heel” predicament it finds itself in. The gradually building ‘Regret’ is a throwback, in some ways, to the woozy and unstable 1960s Disney soundtrack style that dominated the Actor album. Birth in Reverse, although bold in its lyrical gaucheness (“it just an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate”) as well as its fluid and spontaneous guitar playing, it is a good St.Vincent song but certainly not a brilliant one.
Later on ‘Psychopath’ delivers a taut electro pop number that has some lovely and riveting sonic touches around the “ahh, ahh,ahh-ahh ahh” refrain with everything bar the beat dropping out immediately and unexpectedly after the song’s chorus and “Prince Johnny” swoons sarcastically with divine lyrical bite. Album closer ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ is quite probably Clark’s best song so far, and certainly features her most soulful performance to date, with ’60s girl group swells, chiming bells and guts, spleens and missing fingers. It’s interesting that the silly, noodling introduction to the track almost tries to undermine the weightiness of the sentiment, as though it’s embarrassed by its power. But its double bluff only really goes to show that St Vincent also acknowledges the absurdity that can accompany such grand gestures, that it is all still just an act and that sometimes there really is no hope left.
This is not the disco influenced and sounding album that many claim it to be (an interpretation partly fuelled by St. Vincent’s description of the material before its release). You can dance to it, yes, but probably in the same robo-mannequin moonwalk style that Clarke herself has adopted during recent live shows. The full but still sometimes disconcertingly skeletal sound that is so intrinsically hers remains and has been honed to perfection here. The on-going production by John Congleton (previous collaborations tellingly include both Anna Calvi and Erykah Badu) is typically sharp and flawless. It seems unrealistic to expect her to stay in this role, which is her most defined and confident thus far, but for now St. Vincent has delivered her most accessible, relatable, consistently engaging and sparky album to date – if you haven’t experienced her yet then St.Vincent is an excellent place to start.