St. Vincent’s Rise to Rock-Stardom
St. Vincent: Rock Star
by Sean Case
Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, makes the best music in America. Her songwriting is smart, impeccable, and downright fun. But—beyond the songs, the poise, the electrifying live performances—what makes St. Vincent such a fascinating artist is her trajectory. Between each record, Clark goes through a death and rebirth. Her latest transmutation, St. Vincent, marks her emergence as peerless art-rock royalty. This isn’t a surprise—after 2011’s Strange Mercy, her ascension seemed inevitable—but it’s still exciting. Her voice has never sounded stronger, her instrumentation never tighter, and her wit never sharper.
Every track is a standout in its own right. “Regret” and “Psychopath” are pop-rock socks to the jaw. “Birth in Reverse,” the first single released from the album, is a tightly wound ball of nervous, scratching energy. “Severed Crossed Fingers,” Clark’s best album-closer to date, is a cynical, heartfelt speech of both triumph and defeat from the “near-future cult leader” persona she’s crafted for herself. The chorus roars from a pulpit: “Spitting our guts from their gears/Draining our spleen over years/Find my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there.” But the persona is thinner than the self-medicated housewife of Strange Mercy. On St. Vincent, Clark’s true voice shines through brighter and truer than ever. It’s her most honest, confident album yet. Her calculated restraint creates a giddy tension, but also allows each song to breathe, to take on a life of its own.
You hear it in “Huey Newton.” From the start, the song marches its sleepy way forward, Clark’s voice calm, almost lazy. But there’s a violence, a darkness in the free associating lyrics: “Cardboard cutthroats/Cowboys of information/Pleasure dot loving dot Huey dot Newton/Oh it was a lonely, lonely winter.” It’s an aimless, hallucinatory, late-night internet session. And then the guitar rips through the dream. The energy, the rage, the existential crises of the chorus: “Entombed in a shrine or zeroes and ones […] In perpetual night oh it’s terribly frightening.” In essence: a dark night of the soul for the twenty-first century.
With each album, Clark hones and destroys her sound, creating from the wreckage something new yet unmistakably St. Vincent-ian. Marry Me (2007) is her bedrock. “All My Stars Aligned” foretells Actor (2009), an album of swirling, deranged, and beautiful melodies. Actor’s “Marrow,” all ominous build-up and violent, textured guitar riffs, lays the groundwork for Strange Mercy. Strange Mercy further electrifies Actor’s orchestral sound, tightening it for its own use. Listening to a song like “Cruel,” one glimpses the road to St. Vincent. It’s one of Strange Mercy’s most polished and danceable tracks, displaying the playful and professional restraint that St. Vincent wears so well.
Beyond a sonic level, St. Vincent’s transformation is staring us right in the eyes. It’s all there in album covers for Marry Me and St. Vincent (displayed above). The Clark of Marry Me gazes with a cautious curiosity, a look of nervous invitation. And then there’s the confident, sultry leer of the shock-haired, enthroned cult leader of St. Vincent. One eyebrow raised almost imperceptibly, the slight upturn at the lips, the daunting poise. She couldn’t care less if we join her. But one look, and we’ve already signed up.