By JAMES RAINIS
Annie Clark’s status as a modern guitar god is now indie nerd gospel, but prior to the plaudits of 2012’s Strange Mercy, her talents with the six-string went a little more under-the-radar. I was lucky enough to catch her performing at All Points West (basically Governor’s Ball Mach 1) following a blisteringly heavy set by the Arctic Monkeys, who were just then discovering how much they wanted to be Black Sabbath. I went over to catch St. Vincent on the recommendation of a friend and was a little wary of this porcelain doll-looking woman and her band of assorted woodwind instruments. If St. Vincent’s baroque pop setup was following Alex Turner and company’s stoner rock swagger, things were about to get a little sedate.
All concerns were washed away when Clark sent the band away and began to shred through Jimi Hendrix’s take on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Despite stopping and demurely alerting us that she was “just kidding,” Clark began to play The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony,” playing a soulful and delightfully spazzy version of the Let It Be track. When she got to the solo, her guitar fizzed like Mentos thrown into a bottle of Diet Coke. Clark’s recklessness as a player gave the song an electric feeling that was entirely alien from the Monkeys’ bass-heavy thud. Here was a musician who, like a Miles Davis, let loose in order to discover something indelible and uniquely her own, twisting the guitar into a medium not only of notes and rhythms but of personality and emotion.
However, on record, Annie Clark’s always struck me as a bit removed from her music. The technical proficiency she’s exhibited over the course of her first three albums as St. Vincent is evident, but it’s always seemed so studied and strident. Those aforementioned baroque arrangements got her associated with masters of refinement like The National and Sufjan Stevens, but I craved an album that showed St. Vincent on the edge, peering inward and getting reckless. St. Vincent is that album.
First, though, let’s talk about that album cover: whereas past releases saw Clark staring vaguely in the direction of the camera, distant and emotionless, St. Vincent places Clark upon a throne pulled from a Star Trek set, her gaze fixed in a knowing, almost accusatory stare and her hair dyed white so that she looks like Storm from X-Men. She looks dreamy and ethereal, but her stare gives off the impression that she can strike you down when she needs to, just as she does in her music. Take “Huey Newton,” which juxtaposes a subdued A-section riding atop Dr. Dre synths and a light stomp-shuffle beat with an absolutely thunderous guitar coda. It’s a musical moment that rips the ground from under you, as Clark’s vocal goes from polite to sinister and her guitar growls with a sizzling ferocity.
If there’s one thing to be said about St. Vincent, it’s that Annie Clark seems to have had a shit-ton of fun making it. Disparate sounds coalesce into puzzlingly addictive melodies, from the phased-out hi-hats and slinking synths that lend the paranoia-brewing “Rattlesnake” its ramshackle funk to the squiggly start-stop dialtone insanity that becomes “Bring Me Your Loves.” Every track features at least one left turn, and even when they aren’t huge ones — “Regret,” for instance, sounds like Clark trying to write a breakup track that could fit on Zeppelin IV — St. Vincent’s compositional know-how and lyrical acuity (“I’m afraid of heaven because I can’t stand the heights / I’m afraid of you because I can’t be left behind” she sings on “Regret”) keeps things fresh as always. On “Digital Witness,” perhaps the album’s best example of Love This Giant collaborator David Byrne’s influence on Clark’s songwriting, she skewers both sound and the exhibitionism of social media, asking, “What’s the point of even sleeping? / If I can’t show you you can’t see me / Watch me jump right off the London Bridge.”
There are still moments of austere beauty on St. Vincent, and their relative rareness makes them all the better for it. “I Prefer Your Love” is a slyly subversive ode to Clark’s mother — whose love Clark prefers to Jesus’ — that features an absolutely beautiful modulation as the bridge gives in to the chorus. “Prince Johnny” sounds like a leftover from the Strange Mercy songwriting sessions, which is actually great because I totally forgot how awesome Strange Mercy was. And then there’s the album finale “Severed Crossed Fingers,” which sounds like a relieved sigh after the mania of the album’s second half. Its plaintive gorgeousness is far from straightforward, though, as Clark airs her insecurities (“Humiliated by age / Terrified of youth”) while pursuing a “calling (that) ain’t calling back.” After the assured adventurousness of St. Vincent, I think Annie Clark is very close to being one of the “heroes on every barstool” she sings so tenderly about.
St. Vincent, as well as other music from this week’s Test Spins, can be spun HERE: