Masturbation. Huey Newton. Television. Seurat. Cowboys of information. You may ask yourself: How did we get here? The answer is found in the timeless mixture of brilliance and accessibility. As St. Vincent, Annie Clark has spent the last seven years making some of the most rewarding guitar music of the 21st century. Stuck between Warhol and Einstein both in style and method, Clark is a technical savant whose approach to her art is equal parts earned intuition and driven experimentation. Her songcraft has continued to define modern musicianship. Her fourth, self-titled album will be as definitive to shredders and gear heads as it will be to any fan of gothic romance with a dark, self-directed sense of humor. In short, St. Vincent is the impossibly specific artifact that with applied patience will speak to just about anyone.
While so many musicians are content to reimagine the past or create fantasies of the future, St. Vincent is psychically linked to a handful of bands making music that is thoroughly modern. Similar to the early albums of TV on the Radio or Animal Collective’s post-Feels output, St. Vincent sounds like it was created on another planet by a creature experiencing some severe emotional turbulence. Like the best songwriters, Clark knows how to subvert and sublimate. Those tactics dominate St. Vincent to the point where you may wonder if she’s having one over on you. Yet, the effect is more beguiling than manipulative. In the end, you may find yourself pouring over her lyrics, interviews and live footage for any hint of where this strange, beautiful and deeply heartfelt music comes from.
The influence of Clark’s time spent touring with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne can be heard throughout St. Vincent. From the staccato horn blasts of “Digital Witness” to the deep groove and pervasive paranoia of “Rattlesnake,” Clark channels Byrne’s white boy funk into something considerably more skittish and yet somehow less opaque. With a few noteworthy exceptions, Byrne is a mostly a cerebral songwriter, as capable of conjuring intense atmospheres as he is of turning seriousness on its nose. Clark possess that same capacity for cheek but just as often uses it to blur the lines between sincerity and entendre. Amidst the seemingly disconnected stream of detail in “Huey Newton,” where Clark is busy painting a scene of disturbing unreality (“fake knife/real ketchup”), emerges a disarming truism (“oh it was a lonely, lonely winter”) that retreats in advance of the track’s awe inspiring riffage and Clark’s ravings about “motherless creatures.” On the Kate Bush indebted “I Prefer Your Love,” Clark achieves the opposite effect when she chooses the love of her subject over Jesus Christ. The track contains such an overdose of emotional generosity that it brings to mind another famous declaration about love and Jesus. And yet there’s something funny about it too because why wouldn’t she prefer the love of someone real to that of a deity? That the same song contains the heartrending confession “all the good in me is because of you,” further complicates a direct reading of Clark’s intentions. Is it earnest? Is it obvious? Is it even true?
Elsewhere, things are no more straightforward. “Regret” may be the best tribute to 90s indie rock that doesn’t sound like it came straight from the cutting floor of a Pavement studio session. Again, Clark inhabits the spirit of her forbearers in making choices that are simultaneously arty and accessible. She easily navigates from the deep head nod of the verse to an orchestral breakdown that finds her drawing parallels between her fears of death, heights and abandonment. This kind of circuitous logic allows Clark to create a patchwork album that is whole without necessarily being consistent. “Regret” dissolves into the manic “Bring Me Your Loves” which sounds like it was written by the woman on the other side of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” St. Vincent is fascinated with how our analog emotions have been disrupted by new technologies. Fittingly, the album concludes with a trilogy of songs that are more or less about how to love in the digital age. “Psychopath” is among the most straightforward on St. Vincent and earns its place with a brilliantly simple metaphor. “Distance is exactly like a blowing wind/putting out the embers and the tiny flames/and keeping the big ones burning,” may be enough of a reason that a song called “Psychopath” finds its way onto the mixtapes of the strictly vanilla this year.
Rounding out the numbing sensation of detachment is “Severed Crossed Fingers.” With synths that could have come from the speakers of the Delorean, the album closer comes on with sonic cheesiness that approaches being gauche. Slowly it evolves into a ballad of long suffering friendship that diagnoses the process of aging as an act of fading away from the rest of the world’s cares. “We’ll be heroes/on every bar stool/when seeing double beats/not seeing one of you,” Clark intones with her characteristic comic seriousness. “Found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there,” she imagines with melancholy hopefulness. No doubt Clark understands the absurdity of that image. Yet she overcomes it, applying with invisible force the guarded sincerity that makes St. Vincent her greatest triumph yet. Within the album’s breathless 40 minutes, Clark achieves equilibrium of intellect and honesty on her own terms. Assisted by a willingness to pervert typical song structure and then subvert expectations of weirdness for its own sake, St. Vincent is as baffling as it is utterly intoxicating.
Many musicians are effective in matching their music to its meaning but as Clark is quick to note, “a smile is more than showing teeth.” When your lyrics entertain the possibility of contradiction or at least a willful slipperiness of spirit, finding the music to represent these shifty places can be understandably tricky. In that respect, the success of St. Vincent is found in the trust between Clark and her audience. A charismatic talent, the thing to understand about St. Vincent is that any one thing can and regularly does imply its opposite. Humor is a safety net for serious self-analysis. The avant-garde is a good excuse to write a pop song. And understanding doesn’t preclude being utterly lost.