St VincentSt. Vincent’s star has been steadily rising for almost eight years. Each one of her three albums has surpassed the other for originality, songwriting ability and scorching self-possession. This, her fourth and the first to be self-titled (and appropriately at that), continues with that trend. Although it may not actually be better than some of 2011’s seductive and quietly threatening “Strange Mercy”, it is a more human and bolder work and marks the introduction of an unfiltered honesty that previous albums kept closer to their chest. She has taken both musical and physical elements of the biggest and most successful pop stars of the mid-eighties and early nineties -- Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson- and compressed them into an art rock template where David Bowie continues to dominate Annie Clark’s pop-cultured psyche. But then again the eponymous naming of the album adds credence and a confidence to the idea that this could only be a St Vincent album, every second of it could have only come from Annie Clark’s own pen, her lips and guitar.

A lot of the songs on “St. Vincent” are uncoded, straightforward story-telling songs relating to Clark’s own experiences. Some of the songs are harder to decipher and are more abstract and, on occasion, surreal. If there is an underlying theme here then it is how life is now for someone who has known what it is to be online for the majority of their adulthood but who has also experienced at the start of their childhood, pre-internet life. It is the outlook of someone who has therefore placed some (healthy?) distance to the option of only living a life continually attached to a screen of some size.

The opening track “Rattlesnake” and cloudily synthetic ballad “I Prefer Your Love”, which sits in the centre of the album and quite sensibly between two of the most frenzied and odd tracks, both fall into the first category of this vivid storytelling. The metallic and brittle shake of “Rattlesnake” recounts Clark’s walk through a seemingly deserted desert, how she removes all of her clothes due to the heat and a desire to be free and connect with both the moment and the surrounding nature. The sound and then appearance of a rattlesnake provokes a fight or flight sprint back to safety. This is a very loaded image or course, phallic maybe and certainly mythical and the raise in Clark’s vocal inflection towards the end -- ‘I’m not the only one!’ -- and the dryness of the rhythm helps bring to life both the thrill and the fear. 

“I Prefer Your Love” really does wear its heart firmly on its sleeve. Annie Clark recently very nearly lost her mother to illness and with lines like ‘wipe the blush and smudge from my cheek and wonder what will be become of your little one’, this is a last lullaby for a child whose parent means more to them than any spiritual or religious figurehead could. There is no trickery with this track, it’s a beautiful song and although the rhythm and melody of the verses sound a little like the verses of “Ashes to Ashes” and it could easily be the missing song in a quartet of Patrick Leonard-written Madonna ballads, compared to Clark’s discography thus far it is surprising for its truthfulness and sincerity.

Following last year’s sometimes successful collaboration with David Byrne, the brass funk that dominated “Love This Giant” makes a brief reappearance on the exhilarating “Digital Witness”, a better and more memorable track than any that appeared on “Giant”. Along with the eccentric and genre shifting “Huey Newton”, this song explicitly questions the point of some social media and specially that of sharing information that really requires no further spectators and the reasons why such validation is required for just about everything. Liking another person’s status when that status tells you that they are in their garden? ‘If I you can’t show it, you can’t see me; what’s the point in doing anything?’ echoes Clark.  “Digital Witness” is an example of the move, albeit subtle, to songs that are as catchy as can be, subversive lyrically still but brighter and bolder than before. In another lifetime it could have been a Kid Creole and The Coconuts track.  The astounding “Huey Newton” which follows a sedated lo-if r’n’b first half suddenly breaks down irreconcilably into a guitar-led psychosis-fuelled second half, initiated by nights of winter time loneliness with only Google Search for company.

Bring Me Your Loves” is probably the most outwardly and bracingly strange moment on “St. Vincent”. It has an addled and fevered sweat and atmosphere with marching drums, multi-tracked and obnoxious harmonies frustrated by the ‘I took you off your leash but I can’t make you heel’ predicament it finds itself in. The gradually building “Regret” is a throwback in some ways to the woozy and unstable 1960s Disney soundtrack style that dominated the “Actor” album and “Birth in Reverse”, although bold in its lyrical gaucheness (‘it just an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate’) and fluid and spontaneous guitar playing is a good St Vincent song but certainly not a brilliant one.

Later on, “Psychopath” delivers a taut electro-pop number which has some lovely and riveting sonic touches around the ‘ahh, ahh,ahh-ahh ahh’ refrain with everything bar the beat dropping out immediately and unexpectedly after the song’s chorus and “Prince Johnny” swoons sarcastically with divine lyrical  bite. Album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” is quite probably Clark’s best song so far, certainly featuring her most soulful performance to date. 60s girl group swells, chiming bells and guts, spleens and missing fingers. It’s interesting that the silly, noodling introduction to the track almost tries to undermine the weightiness of the sentiment, as though it’s embarrassed by its power. But its double bluff only really goes to show that St Vincent also acknowledges the absurdity that can accompany such grand gestures, that it is all still just an act and that sometimes there really is no hope left.

This is not the album with disco sounds and influences that many claim it to be (partly fuelled by St. Vincent’s description of the material herself before its release). You can dance to it, yes, but probably in the same robo-mannequin moonwalk style that Clarke herself has adopted during recent live shows. The full but still sometimes disconcertingly skeletal sound that is so intrinsically hers remains and has been honed to perfection here and the on-going production by John Congleton (previous collaborations tellingly include both Anna Calvi and Erykah Badu) is typically sharp and  flawless. It seems unrealistic to expect her to stay in this role which is her most defined and confident thus far for long but for now St. Vincent has delivered her most accessible, easy to relate to, and consistently engaging and sparky album to date; if you haven’t experienced her yet then “St Vincent” is an excellent place to start.

Product DetailsTrumpets (muted and otherwise), trombones, tuba, saxophones; if you can’t stand a brass band then don’t bother entering this experimental space that is the collaboration between the grandaddy of new wave, David Byrne, and super cool new girl Annie Clark aka St Vincent. The majority of the songs here feature either Byrne or St Vincent singing solo, a few are actual duets but almost every second of each track is crammed full with a parping, swelling or squeaking wind instrument sounding off; it’s very much the third, non-credited party here.

David Byrne sounds very much at home in this musical landscape, an artist who has collaborated with many world music artists and has also produces music in his own right that incorporates many eclectic, diverse styles from various cultures (1992’s “Uh-Oh” album for example), not even taking into account Talking Heads. St Vincent makes queasy, dark, melodic indie pop and is a fantastic guitarist. She is an artist that has slowly, over the course of 3 albums, each better than the last, has established herself as a significant new talent, a fascinating artist very much in her prime whose best work is probably yet to come. But it’s actually the horns that tie the 12 tracks here together, providing a constant, nurturing narrative regardless of who takes the lead.

David Byrne sounds very much like David Byrne on the majority of this album, a cerebral, wise but paranoid voice: St Vincent though goes places she hasn’t before with some fascinating results. This is a funky album, it’s politely and quietly funky and never really works up a sweat but play it at home at a decent volume level and you will be inclined to move around a bit, I guarantee. St Vincent, unlike Byrne, has never, ever been funky.  On “Weekend In The Dust”, on which Byrne doesn’t feature, St Vincent’s vocals are soulful and flirtatious and tightly harmonised, with an ‘I don’t get it, I just don’t get it’ refrain sung over chunky horns and a r’n’b beat; it’s not just a curio it’s a success. On “Ice Age”, which is the most typical St Vincent track here, after a sudden key change in the second verse the angular, staccato horns and bass guitar start to lose control around her. She is also responsible for the best song, the languid and glistening, world-weary “Optimist”; a gorgeous, solo performance.

I Should Watch TV” and “Dinner for Two” see David Byrne typically bewildered and unsettled by metropolitan, urbane situations and are both excellent songs with elegant arrangements and crisp execution. Of the actual, proper duets between the two, of which there are actually only a couple (although they co-wrote the whole thing together, music and lyrics) “Lazarus” is a poised, assertive stand-off and makes you wish that there are more equal interactions between the two. The Dapp Kings are featured on the disappointingly flabby “The One Who Broke Your Heart” and why is St Vincent so buried on this track as she also is on the better “I Am An Ape” where she features as back-up singer to Byrne only?  Byrne’s voice dominates these songs entirely and it just feels like such a wasted opportunity.

 

It takes to time to settle into this odd, self contained album which doesn’t actually feel like a collaborative effort although I’m certain it is in the truest sense. David has his songs and St Vincent has hers and if you’re a fan of either, ideally both, then there is a lot here to recommend.