Listening to St. Vincent's new self-titled LP, I find it harder and harder to market Annie Clark's music to friends by method of comparison. On her past efforts, including 2011's excellent Strange Mercy and her breakthrough 2009 record Actor, Clark has stood out on the forefront of a brave, new wave of indie rock - a beacon of hope and intelligence amongst a multitude of meandering noisemakers with little more than hooks to offer. On St. Vincent, Clark has broken from the curve and can be described as nothing less than an outlier, existing in an entirely different dimension than her closest rivals. If you found her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne Love This Giant to be a perfect pairing, you are exactly right in your presumption. There's no doubt that some day, Clark will play Byrne to a new generation in every respect. But for now, we find ourselves in the scorched wreckage of Clark's trailblazing path, and I for one couldn't be happier in shambles. St. Vincent is a challenging, mind-boggling, and fearlessly progressive record that will have you scratching your head for months to come. But if you want to take on the challenge, Clark's fourth record gives us her best work yet, coating in a dazzling, digital gloss that couldn't be more appropriate for the state of the industry.
It's hard to put together a concise statement on St. Vincent without sounding like you are proposing a graduate level thesis - there is just so much at play here thematically. But let's start with the cover art: Clark sits regal upon a monochrome throne, exploded hair plastered in place, permanently painted the patron saint of... something (at least we're led to believe). That particular something seems simultaneous foreign and familiar - like an alternate universe that maintains an echo of our own. Clark details this world on the album's first couple tracks. "Rattlesnake" and "Birth In Reverse" both kick the record off with a panicked sense of hurry. This world is a frenzy of color and information, all with the knowledge that time is constantly running out. Clark then slows things down with "Prince Johnny" and "Huey Newton", a pair of character studies to put meat on the skeleton the first two tracks strung together. Johnny is obsessed with accomplishment and legacy and documenting every step, while the narrator of "Huey Newton" (maybe St. Vincent herself) is Ophelia with attention deficit disorder. The free association Internet black hole at hand is both comical and terrifying. "I'm entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones", Clark sings. Sound familiar?
"Digital Witness" answers your "What the hell is going on?" with maybe the most direct answer you get on the record. "People turn the TV on it looks just like a window... 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?" Adding to the binary noise at hand, Clark sings, a muse above the cell phone static, and offers an opposite perspective to the overly confessional nature of our digital existence. From there, the punches come pretty rhythmically. "I Prefer Your Love" reassesses the opiate of the masses, "Regret" finds us all lonelier in our connectivity than before, and "Bring Me Your Loves" is a glutton for information, baseless passion, and societal one-upping. Clark has written a science fiction prophecy in her new record, and our digital doubles are the main characters.
Clark takes the last three tracks to address the problem at hand. What are we really striving for in our lives when we create these ideological, unrealistic doubles of ourselves in the digital realm? And if we have two lives, then which do we truly invest in to find ourselves and become better human beings? "Every Tear Disappears" is particularly genius, creating a parallel between the promise of a better, shinier, more perfect life with the sadness cropped out and the language of born-again spirituality. Listen to St. Vincent and you'll learn something about this weird modern world we live in. At the very least, you might find yourself a bit more conscious of the lies we tell ourselves on a daily basis comparing our digital lives with our ducks all in a row to those of others.
But perhaps what makes Clark stand out most on St. Vincent is that not one of these themes is presented in a heavy-handed or purposefully inaccessible way. Again, like the David Byrne of her own generation and sound, Clark makes art rock that you can choose to analyze to death (see the above) or just dance in your car to. Let's not forget that Annie Clark is also one of the prolific guitarists of the modern indie rock scene. Seriously, see her live and your jaw will fall off. Clark isn't holding out on us musically for the sake of the message here. Every second of St. Vincent is deliciously groovy - easily her most streamlined effort yet. "Birth In Reverse" and "Digital Witness" are going to bring the house down when Clark tours. "Bring Me Your Loves" and "Rattlesnake" both see Clark shred the guitar like a monster. Meanwhile, "Regret" and "Severed Crossed Fingers" spin some of the most breathtakingly beautiful melodic webs Clark has yet created, and that middle synth break in "Huey Newton" sounds like Back to the Future. Really, there isn't a single weak point to be found here. If you are on a mission to find one, good luck.
Annie Clark has gone above and beyond the call of duty on St. Vincent. Strange Mercy 2 would have been fine - we all would have gone home happy with another gorgeous, captivating collection of melodies and poignant think-pieces. But the fact that St. Vincent is so brilliant just makes it an album worth saying thanks for. Annie Clark has never sounded more like herself, and by that, I mean that she has never sounded further away from the median. This is what the future sounds like.
St. Vincent is out now on Loma Vista. Pick it up at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Clark will tour in support in support of the album and you can see her at the Moore Theater on March 26. Tickets are available here but going fast. Grab them while you can!
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