The cover of St Vincent’s eponymous new album finds Annie Clark on a throne in a futuristic room…
The cover of St Vincent’s eponymous new album finds Annie Clark on a throne in a futuristic room – akin to The Architect’s lair in the The Matrix – sitting in sequins with her new shock of silver hair, looking equal parts futuristic messiah and classic Greek goddess. This juxtaposition between past and visionary future lies at the heart of St Vincent’s startling, rewarding and near faultless fifth album. St Vincent finds the endlessly talented Clark honing her lyrical wizardry, songwriting craft and virtuoso guitar playing to sear through songs that hark back to funk, psych and even ska, yet remain entirely original in their construction. If this album proves St Vincent to be a pop artist then she is one that is taking cues from no one but herself.
In a recent piece she wrote for The Guardian where she commented on her relationship with Twitter, she told a personal anecdote of herself at six years old, being in a room that was mirrored on three sides. “Anyway, I remember looking into one side of the mirror and seeing the reflection go on forever,” she writes. “I thought, if only I could tilt my head at just the perfect angle I’d actually be able to see ‘infinity’. Hello self! Here are your many echoes! The further they get from the source, the smaller and less substantial they become.” She confronts this weird dynamic across the album but most notably on ‘Digital Witness’ and with the lyrics of ‘Huey Newton’ where she sings, “I’m entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones”. She’s not the first artist to deal with how our relationships and interactions are becoming ever more technologised but she is one of the first to make it this fun.
An early critique of St Vincent’s music was that behind the beguiling talent (a reputed ability to play over a dozen different instruments) there was not much substance behind all that style. This album blows that notion right out of the water – as a writer she is digging deeper behind the mess of personal relationships, failure and obsession to reveal subtle humours and truths. Within the clamouring and groovy horns on ‘Digital Witness’ there is a more direct side to St Vincent where with wry wit she comments on our desire to document our entire lives, “Digital Witnesses / What’s the point of even sleeping? / If I can show it, you can see me” ending with the lyric, “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?” The irony and success of this theme is that Clark is not an oppressive Luddite but a young savvy user of technology like the rest of us, seemingly just trying to make order out of an increasingly cluttered and fractured life experience.
Clark is notoriously guarded about her private life but has mentioned that she did go through a better period in her life in recording this album, as opposed to the tough time she experienced just before recording 2011’s Strange Mercy. Despite this, there is still room for emotional pullers like the sparkling ‘I Prefer Your Love’ an ode to her mother that evokes the 80s heydays of a Madonna or Sinead O’Connor by using their oft-employed motif of ‘love = religion’ with the lyrics, “I prefer your love to Jesus”. On the flip side these themes are executed with such apparent ease and aided by such crystalline production that picking the standouts on this album becomes an increasingly fraught task. There is the rollicking shredding on ‘Regret’, or the groovy ska-influenced, ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ that shows just how good Clark is on the guitar, with a hotwire solo that verges on losing control but never does. Then there’s the 90s pop of ‘Psychopath’ and the devastating and pulsing ‘Every Tear Disappears’. It’s clear that Clark wanted to fill this album with hits, redirecting her art rock leanings to show herself off as a consummate songwriter without sacrificing her idiosyncratic mix of soul-searching social commentary and whirlwind instrumentation. This is best shown on gender-ambiguous, ‘Prince Johnny’ a song written about a self-destructive friend that you can’t help because you’re equally self-destructive, which contrasts Clark’s serene voice against her fuzzy guitar and spacey production.
St. Vincent’s ultimate triumph is her ability to seem like the logical continuation of her influences that include Bowie, Talking Heads and Blondie. But also so relevant is that a deep knowledge of those influences is not necessary to appreciate how great her music is. The themes of emotional loneliness, digital isolation and the accompanied sensory overdrive seem remarkably topical in 2014 and the catchy but never-generic songwriting makes this an album you want to put on loop. This is an elegant and composed product, free of faff or filler, glimmering just like the sequins of Clark’s dress. But just like those embellishments, it’s clear that there is a beating heart below that lustre and that makes this album an early standout for this year and helps its searing light shine a little brighter.