Review Summary: A challenging art pop album that convincingly balances the beautiful with the ugly, and ultimately stays human despite its futuristic leanings.
The allure of Texan indie darling Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, has always lain in her tremendous versatility. Whether it was the tenderness of her debut Merry Me
, the cerebral force of Actor
or the sheer humanity of Strange Mercy
, she's never been afraid to take risks, perpetually shape-shifting from a fearless luminary to an inconspicuous singer-songwriter. This dichotomy between the discordant and the serene permeates through Clark's eponymous fourth album as well. She's still attempting to find the middle ground between idiosyncratic songwriting and pop sensibilities, yet the sense of space that propelled her essential previous outing has been traded for robotic groove and futuristic studio execution. There's no mistake that the precisely designed album cover pictures Clark as a near-future cult leader that could populate one of Philip K. Dick's sci-fi novels. Her choreographed live shows follow suit as the singer/guitarist goes totally bonkers on stage, incorporating bold theatrics to reflect her deranged visions. Such risky marketing endeavors would certainly fizzle out if St. Vincent
wasn't such a resounding triumph.
The album is front-loaded with tunes that seamlessly integrate musical inventiveness, great vitality and sharp focus. Opener 'Rattlesnake' is as panicky as it is immediate, beginning with a tectonic 3-bit beat and climaxing in an explosive guitar solo to scintillating effect. 'Birth In Reverse' rocks hard, setting Clark's signature skronky shredding against a dissonant synth-heavy backdrop. There's no better number to encapsulate the artist's duality than the surrealistic 'Huey Newton' in which lush dream pop suddenly bursts into horror-show sludge halfway through. Meanwhile, 'Digital Witness' rekindles her collaboration with David Byrne, making for a genuinely infectious tune built around a steady beat and distorted horn section. The sonic flourishes has been engineered to perfection by John Congleton whose output with experimental rockers The Paper Chase leaves its stamp on the record's most oppressively dark moments like 'Bring Me Your Loves.' The track, which delves into its grotesque imagery with distinctly Arabic rhythms, would be a disaster in the hands of a less seasoned artist, but Clark turns it into an ominous party banger that's uniquely hers.
The singer's lyricism remains as dexterous and socially aware as ever. While Strange Mercy
hinted at financial crisis on numerous cuts, the self-titled often revolves around the fears connected with advanced technology, as the humorous skewering of social media in 'Digital Witness' attests. Even though the sound of the new record may have been heavily synthesized in order to make it more robotic, there's still a whole lot of heart and emotional heft on display. Clark gets achingly personal on the album's staggering ballads which show that she doesn’t need to rely on artful stylistic embellishments to leave a lasting impact. Dedicated to her mother, 'I Prefer Your Love' may be her most heartfelt manifestation of affection thus far. When she sings “All the good in me is because of you” to the ethereal arrangement, the song hits every emotional note right. The delightful space balladry of 'Severed Crossed Fingers' is equally poignant as Clark reflects on finding comfort as a performer in the thankless music business.
Clark’s decision to make her fourth album self-titled implies that this is her definitive work, and indeed she's in commendable form. St. Vincent
is a challenging art pop album that convincingly balances the beautiful with the ugly, and ultimately stays human despite its futuristic leanings. On 'Every Tear Disappears', Clark proclaims “A smile is more than showing teeth / It's not the potion, it's the magic that I seek”, which may be the artist's unequivocal statement of intent showcasing her ongoing quest for artistic self-fulfillment.