Wide doe eyes and an endearing crop of mussed black curls adorned the covers of Annie Clark’s (St. Vincent) first two albums. Her soft, measured voice, as tender and unassuming as her undeniably pretty face, floated weightlessly over dense layers of tones and textures. It was quintessential art rock — her songs read like an abstract painting, jumbled assortments of sounds that were pleasing on the surface, but often lacked structure. Her music was intricate, ornate, surprising in its nebulousness; she diverged from conventional song structure whenever possible, and was successful… mostly. She didn’t instantly snag you with hooks and poppy choruses, but her songs had depth and an uncanny eloquence, and her pure voice led you unhesitatingly through her wavering melodies.
Clark and her music embody the same quirkiness as like-minded art rockers of the late 2000’s, but to simply say she “sounds like” anyone else is a discredit to her unique style. She produces a sound all her own, with a keen ear for texture and snappy, sophisticated guitar skills that only come with years of experience.
On her new self-titled album St. Vincent, Clark returns with more confidence and conviction than ever before. Gone are the ambiguous close-ups of her expressionless face — the cover to St. Vincent features Clark on her rightful throne, an intimidating figure of power and allure. Her songs are tighter, more controlled, and although their melodies are easier to track she still leaves plenty of room for hidden surprises, like the grungy, inscrutable guitar noise which emerges in the opener “Rattlesnake.”
What Clark needed to cross over into mainstream was a point of accessibility, a recognizable element to ease listeners into her sometimes impenetrable songs. With this goal in mind, she’s taken steps on this album to reach out to that mainstream audience.
The jazzy horn section, for example, from Clark’s 2012 collaboration with David Byrne Love This Giant, makes a return in the single “Digital Witness.” Its familiar R&B undertones provide a surface listeners can easily latch onto even as she bemoans the shortcomings of our egocentric, hyper-tech society: “Digital witness/What’s the point of even sleeping?/If I can’t show it you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” The song is so caught up in its own driving beats that you’re caught breathless when it cuts suddenly short at the end.
Clark displays in full-force the peculiar gloom only hinted at on her previous albums. The gospel choir from Hell makes a cameo in the spectacular “Huey Newton” before the song finishes with crunchy, headstrong guitar strumming. She shows she isn’t afraid of harshness or dissonance, and often distorts the sounds of her guitar so radically that you can hardly tell what instrument she’s playing — but damn, whatever it is, it sounds good.
This album proves also that she knows how to manufacture a catchy tune when she really wants to. “Bring Me Your Loves” swaggers over an R&B techno-groove, supported by a syncopated percussion backbeat as she spits her lyrics with the kind of chutzpah I’ve only ever seen from hip-hop artists like M.I.A.
The glammy “Birth in Reverse” is perhaps less immediately catchy, but it’s not like you’ll notice anyway while stupefied by her unreal ability to shred a guitar. Her fingers work a similar magic near the end of the opener “Rattlesnake,” and also in spastic bursts in “Digital Witness” and “Regret.”
Annie Clark placing herself on a queenly pedestal is by no means a pretentious front. Her unnerving stoicism and coolness belie the intensity of her lyrics, but it only takes one listen to understand that Clark is very serious about her music. She said in a recent interview, “…The hardest thing for a musician to do is to sound like yourself – and I think that’s true. That’s really the end goal, to have a voice that’s purely your own.” Without doubt Annie Clark has established herself as a voice like no other. Whether her songs are always palatable or not, there’s no denying that she’s carved out her own small niche in the rock world, and for that she deserves credit.
Any fan of St. Vincent knows her songs flirt with experimentation. On her older albums and this newer one both, there are songs that frankly you shouldn’t like — but do anyway. She has this queer way of manipulating harsh, raw sounds into very listenable material, and in doing so she demonstrates what makes her such an intriguing artist.
“Digital Witness” and “Bring Me Your Loves” are the album’s most accessible highlights, encapsulating the tension between digital and funk with sparkling production. “Severed Crossed Fingers” is another standout, a poignant ballad that proves she doesn’t need electronic flourish to compose a wonderful song.
Clark is still riding the momentum following her fantastic collaboration with David Byrne, and so it’s no coincidence that the album’s most successful songs are the ones that take cues from their previous work. When she delves too deeply into the strange, sometimes uncomfortable world of art rock, she risks limiting the scope of her audience. For Clark, though, this is a risk worth taking every time.
It’s certain that her next album as will be just as good, if not better, because this sort of innate musicianship doesn’t just disappear overnight. If St. Vincent will continue to push her way into the mainstream airwaves… well, that’s another question entirely. She already has her foot in the door of pop-accessibility, but she doesn’t seem like the type to sacrifice her artistic integrity to sell a few more records. In the end though, no matter which path she decides to take, Annie Clark’s future is surely a bright one.
Reviewer: Kendall Russell
IRC: Bill Pulice & Tom Byrne *
Powered by Facebook Comments