In theory, St. Vincent is not my cup of tea. My bread and butter is chaotic, at times bratty, at others dangerous, no-nonsense garage-punk ala Together Pangea or Diarrhea Planet, at least this month anyway. My first intimation of Annie Clark’s work was with the ubiquitous “Cruel,” which, while catchy and indicative of sincere pop craftsmanship, smacked a bit too much of the contemporaneous chillwave phenomenon, which I had grown disillusioned with. But the stirrings and the praise continued for St. Vincent, and come time for her self-titled fourth album, I was more than willing to bite. The result is nothing short of absolutely impressive. Clark does everything that I’m usually highly suspicious of with such finesse, what would usually come off as pretentious and repetitive land as endearingly precocious and altogether smart.
Opener “Rattlesnake” makes me think of “On Sight” from ‘Yeezus’ in that it seems intentionally angular and tortured, but with a kind of curiosity that escapes Kanye’s more aggressive manifesto. More than that, there’s no way you could dance to “On Sight” like you could let loose to “Rattlesnake.” And impressively, from the very start of the album, St. Vincent makes guitar safe for pop music, which is a welcome respite to the “rock is dead” chants that tend to accompany such experimentations into electro-pop. “Birth in Reverse” builds on the momentum of “Rattlesnake” while zooming in on subjects like taking out the garbage and masturbating, zooming through the panorama of “an ordinary day” at a schizophrenic pace, highlighting the madness of modern living, coming to a head at the segmental guitar solo that feels like the embodiment of a mind-numbing daily routine.
“Prince Johnny” follows this, juxtaposing classic pop starlets like Nancy Sinatra with church choir backing vocals and a futuristic electronic drum beat. While it seems as though the goal here was to make an intentionally bloated testament to the bloated ego of the titular character, at times it seems like the substance seeps out of it, and comes out of the oven a bit overcooked around the edges. It’s all made up for, though, on the excellent “Digital Witness,” which is regimented, straight, and to the point. It’s witty without being overwrought, tackling the iGeneration’s preoccupation with being seen by anyone and everyone, preferring the simulated to sometimes disappointing reality. “I Prefer Your Love” takes a sharp turn towards the deeply personal, addressing something as grand as deity, only to reject it in favor of the worldly. It’s a tale of love, in this case for Clark’s mother, whose earthly presence is so much more than anything that could be promised by a savior, preferring her love to Jesus.
The rest of the album softballs things a bit until the end, but it’s not without a worthy amount of intrigue. “Regret” recalls lighthearted new wave, and “Bring Me Your Loves” is a funny caricature of manic, unfocused desire so typical of reality TV drama and the youth it inspires. “Psychopath” flits along on a jutting beat and a dreamy chorus, and “Every Tear Disappears” works out all the kinks in Clark’s system before setting up for the stunning closer. “Severed Crossed Fingers,” apparently delivered under the duress of tears, is reminiscent of David Bowie in a beautiful, almost understated way. Clark’s account of the song is that it’s about the ability of the heart to hold out hope even when things are utterly hopeless, and she does a damn fine job of capturing that, from the caustic opening chords to the final bow.
While ‘St. Vincent’ occasionally overshoots its trajectory, every song on this album nevertheless sounds nothing less than intentional. What I mean by this is that when Clark wants to be grandiose and decadent like on “Prince Johnny,” she never seems unsure or insecure. When she wants to reign herself in and hold a microscope up to her always pertinent subject, as on “Birth In Reverse,” suddenly we realize the finer details we’ve missed at first glance. When she wants to get sentimental, as on “Severed Crossed Fingers,” the irony is kept on a short leash and the heartstrings are, in fact, tugged. When she wants to be quirky and immediate, as on “Regret,” it never feels forced, and despite all the arty glam she’s picked up over the time it took to make this project a reality, it manages to be relatable and epic at the same time. While I may have taken one look at that regal album cover and thought twice about bowing, after giving ‘St. Vincent’ a fair shake, it’s obvious that the throne is well deserved.
Recommended Songs: Birth In Reverse, Digital Witness, I Prefer Your Love, Severed Crossed Fingers