The cover of St. Vincent, the self-titled fourth album from Annie Clark, posits the multi-instrumentalist as some sort of galactic empress or cult leader, glowering impressively from her throne. It’s a fitting image for this, an ambitious, monolithic collection of songs that, for all its sonic economy, feels epic. Her confidence, visually portrayed on the LP’s cover, is earned; over the course of four studio albums, and a stellar collaborative effort with Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Clark has maintained a singular artistic vision and proven herself as one of the most creative and innovative voices working in indie music. St. Vincent’s musical world is one where songs shift and undulate, where tense, wiry arrangements can explode into glorious fuzz and reverb without warning. St. Vincent is at once anxious, sexy, angry, and beautiful; it easily stands head and shoulders over her previous (albeit excellent) work.
“I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography,” Clark told Paste in a recent interview, “and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like himself.” Under that lens, it’s not hard to see why it was so appealing for her to self-title this album – even at first listen, it’s readily apparent that Annie Clark isn’t aping anyone’s style but her own. Songs range from funky balladry (“Prince Johnny”) to crunchy classic rock (“Regret”) to gospel-style confessional (the breathtaking “I Prefer Your Love”). The burbling brass lines that dominated 2012’s Love This Giant make a welcome return in the disco-stomp of “Digital Witness.” Clark remains a master of disguising and distorting her guitar, following a trend she started on 2011’s Strange Mercy, where it’s difficult to tell what’s synthesizer and what’s guitar. It’s disorienting and exhilarating all at once. The range of sounds she achieves is impressive, producing a nervous, rubbery solo on “Rattlesnake” and grinding, machine-like riffs on avant-garde rocker “Bring Me Your Loves”.As always, Clark’s lyrics are immediate and intensely personal, without being overly revelatory. Some of the songs are autobiographical – “Rattlesnake”, for example, recounts a true story where Clark, finding herself alone in the middle of Texas prairie, stripped off her clothes, only to encounter the titular creature menacing her from the brush. “I thought it was the wind blowing, but the wind wasn’t blowing…I just took off,” she told Pitchfork; she sprinted, still naked, back to her friend’s house, where she immediately downed a shot of tequila, and then, presumably, banged out a song about it. Others, like the aforementioned “Digital Witness,” address life in the internet age and the tendency of people to overshare their lives. “If I can’t show it, you can’t see me/ What’s the point of doing anything?” she wonders, with a hint of weariness in her voice. “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?
Elsewhere on the album, she can be found reliving the strangest Ambien trip of all time, resulting in meeting deceased political activist Huey Newton in a hotel room, or waxing poetic about the mundanity of life after touring. “Oh, what an ordinary day/ Take out the garbage, masturbate,” she croons on “Birth in Reverse,” her elastic voice racing neck-and-neck with the gritty guitar line toward certain doom. Only in her hands could such a sentiment be so bleakly funny.
The album closes itself out with “Severed Crossed Fingers,” an earnest, blinking-back-tears ballad that evokes the ruins of an abandoned relationship, too far gone to ever salvage, too painful to wax nostalgic over. It might be the most overt thing Clark has ever penned, and it’s very affecting. At a glance, the album’s scattered messages don’t seem to coalesce into a unified theme, but repeated listening might help to suss it out: St. Vincent is about coming to terms; with yourself, with the world, with love, with life and death. It’s about figuring out how to brave all of that, and be yourself. And if there’s one thing that Annie Clark knows how to be, it’s just that: herself.
I cannot recommend this album highly enough. St. Vincent is currently available in stores, digitally and at ilovestvincent.com.