:Retrowerks: St. Vincent ‒ St. Vincent
Reviewed by William Dashiell Hammett
The work of St. Vincent, the nom de guerre of Annie Clark, has been compared to the likes of Kate Bush and David Bowie. During her career she has shown herself to be an innovative guitarist with a distinctive style, taking influences from jazz, progressive rock, as well as mainstream pop. However, relegating the 2013 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award winner for Performing Arts to the description of an art-pop starlet would be, not only a disservice to her, but also to her many loyal fans who know how far she transcends that label. And while her recent work with former Talking Heads front man David Byrne did nothing but solidify her status as an indie alt rock superstar, her new self-titled album, easily her most accessible to date, should finally satisfy her detractors and insure her status as someone who will one day have people comparing artists to her just like she’s been compared to Bush and Bowie.
The album starts with the gated aggressiveness of the track “Rattlesnake.” Carried by a simple distorted synth line, the track really begins after the question, “Am I the only one in the only world?” with the addition of the percussion and guitar. For me, the actual meanings of the lyrics always come second, but with Clark you can’t really separate them—her words are so intertwined with the feeling of the music and she does an amazing job of weaving her voice in with the rest of the instruments. The lyrics present very deep introspection and the music highlights that mood. The next song, “Birth In Reverse,” continues along the same vein giving the impression that Clark is holding in the aggression she wants to unleash but it’s quite ready to—until the chorus when she finally lets loose with the full force of her power. Both of these tracks are amazing in their ability to weave different guitar melodies and counter with synths and well placed bass lines, while her voice floats above and amplifies the tone of the tracks. “Birth In Reverse” descends into a bit of a chaos of guitar, allowing Clark to play a bit, before going to its end. And did I mention that the bass line during the chorus is outstanding!
“Prince Johnny” takes us along a different vein of this musical journey. Much lighter in tone than the previous two tracks, “Prince Johnny” is dominated by an atmospheric synth wave and softness in Clark’s voice that is at odds to the seriousness of the lyrics—again, too interwoven to be separated from the music. Throughout the track, percussion, guitar and bass lines accent her voice and carry a melody that feels just out of reach. The track “Huey Newton” continues the deceptively lighter tone again borne upon the back of well-crafted synth melodies and an almost militarily precise snare. I say deceptive as while the musical tone presented is decidedly light, the lyrics that are presented overtop the tune are poetically deep which only magnifies the words’ penetration into your consciousness. We’re treated to some beautifully layered synths right before the track seamlessly turns to a full force belligerent attitude that matches the words for the second half of the track.
The lead single of the album, “Digital Witness,” follows and deals with society’s recent infatuation with social media and the current over-sharing culture we’re now dealing with (seriously, do you think if you don’t post a picture of that taco on your plate we don’t think you’ll ever eat?). Putting the meaning aside, the track is not your typical pop single. Dominated by a horn section accented by some high pitched synths, it isn’t until the first chorus that we hear a full spectrum of tones with the more involved percussion and some very nice vocal harmonizing. After that first chorus we are treated with some interesting breaks and different stresses as the song progresses. The deep synth bass line is truly absorbing. Another semi-autobiographical track follows with the ballad “I Prefer Your Love.” The track deals with feelings Clark dealt with during an illness suffered by her mother. The expected emotions one would experience when dealing with such a situation are amazingly tangible. Throughout the track, you cannot help but feel the sadness Clark projects with her voice and supported by simple synth waves and steady, but light, percussion.
“Regret” comes slamming in with some lightly delivered heavy guitar riffs taking us to an unquestionably different mood. While the music is particularly more upbeat, the lyrics are haunted by the tone of the song’s title. A major highlight for me with this track was the guitar break in which Clark layers guitar track over track giving an almost horn section quality. Further breaks in the track highlight different aspects, offering a light synth line, a nice vocal solo, brief silence, and then ending the track with a supremely well executed diminuendo. With “Bring Me Your Loves,” Clark really brings out the synths, allowing them to dominate while being backed by the return of the militarily precise snare. With lyrics delivered with the same martial cadence of the snare drum and backed by guitar accents, the song feels swift and fleeting. You get the impression that if you don’t pay close attention you’ll miss something and, in fact, with all the layers of sounds, you will.
There aren’t many words to describe the impact “Psychopath” makes upon you except one: beautiful. The music is unassumingly light and buoyant; Clark’s vocals are simply striking during the chorus and artfully understated during the verses. Carried by a light, but relentless synth note, the melody is carried by her voice with brief emphases by simple guitar lines and other counter synths as the track builds to its climax. “Every Tear Disappears” follows and with its relegating of the guitar line to one part of the soundscape and synth lines panning around, presents itself as coming from different directions all at once as if in attempt to overwhelm. This countenance is opposed by Clark’s light vocal delivery that builds and diminishes, carrying you along on what feels like a journey of recovery—which the actual lyrics appear to back up.
The album wraps up with “Severed Crossed Fingers” which could, perhaps, be one of the most personal songs ever recorded. While Clark’s vocals are stunning and the music flows effortlessly, there is no single highlight to the track. Simply put, the track must be consumed in its entirety to be fully felt and the normal dissection I put music through fails at describing the song’s magnificence.
St. Vincent as an album is emotional, raw, refined and basically outstanding. For many, all the differing influences, cross genre and interwoven complexities might sound chaotic at times. But remember, all of creation originally came from chaos and that is what this album is: a creation. If your musical tastes expand beyond one genre, you must purchase this album.
02. Birth In Reverse
03. Prince Johnny
04. Huey Newton
05. Digital Witness
06. I Prefer Your Love
08. Bring Me Your Loves
10. Every Tear Disappears
11. Severed Crossed Fingers
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