ST. VINCENT, LOMA VISTA/REPUBLIC
On the cover of her new self-titled album, a wild-eyed and silver-haired St. Vincent sits stoic and watchful on a giant, pink-plastic throne. She’s ditched the iconic black curls as a way to cut a line in the sand: this is her major label debut, having recently left long-time label 4AD to shack up with Republic, a subsidiary of Universal. It’s a bold choice for a major label debut, and it’s sure to be divisive, as she’s more decrying the state of the cold, plastic music industry with the shimmering, polystyrene-laced cove than she is embracing it.
That the album is self-titled is even more of an indication of a grander statement of identity, as if she’s heralding in a new era. Shuffling and whirring like some sort of strange binary vortex, the dark, dirge-like sound that she references on 2011’s Strange Mercy and 2012’s snarling, black metal-tinged single, “Krokodil,” is applied here with pixilated brushstrokes and Gaussian blurs.
The album opens with the crippled, broken synth line of “Rattlesnake,” wobbling on shaky knees before Annie Clark’s hypomanic, out-of-breath wail spills out in trickling streams, half-sighing, half-taunting, “No one will ever find me,” over a disco funeral dirge. It’s more a celebration of reality and naturalism than a disappearing act – a toast to the raw, naked humanism that we’re all slowly forgetting. Clark wrote the song after an experience in the West Texas desert where she, a self-professed city girl, just got stark naked and went wandering, eventually realizing that the whispering wind following her around was a hissing snake and she was completely vulnerable.
It’s this dichotomy that explains why the groove on this album is front and centre: she’s marrying the raw humanism of rhythmic dancing with dissonant digital synths. Aided by producer John Congleton and dual percussionists Homer Steinweiss (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings) and McKenzie Smith (Midlake), she’s peppered the entire record in this underlying sense of foreboding that infiltrates your head, lying mostly undetected like white noise, and only bubbling to the surface on tracks like “Huey Newton,” a stark, trashy glitch-grunge song about an Ambien hallucination of Clark’s.
It’s in this half-hallucinatory and dream-like digital landscape that the album explores a wealth of post-modern preoccupations. From loneliness and isolation to deeply engrained inequalities, the album finds her gesturing to the modern world and asking, “What the hell?!”
Clark articulates a deeply concerning juxtaposition of the sterile digital age and our raw humanity, as seen through lenses of social isolation, confused sexuality and human longing. It’s about reconciling our era of supposedly unlimited potential with the day-to-day mundanity that’s a by-product of it. Indeed, the comparisons seem so much more biting and savage when her sultry lines are screaming out from the digital fabric, stood up next to the stale, whitewashed sexuality of the Internet age.
“Oh what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate/Oh, I’m still holding for the laugh,” she sings coyly on the album’s first single, “Birth in Reverse,” revealing our societal confusion as we somehow try and reconcile our preoccupation with porn and our lingering Victorian-era prudishness.
She’s poking fun at absurd, yet enduring gender stereotypes by highlighting the fact that we still get taken aback by women talking about masturbation. By comparing it with something as mundane as taking out the trash, she undermines the long-engrained patriarchal idea that it’s somehow shocking for a woman to embrace her sexuality.
Clark is likewise exceptionally wry on tracks like “Prince Johnny,” which sees her quietly singing, “And we had such a time of it/Prostrate on my carpet/You traced the Andes with your index,” before demanding, “Who you gonna bed next?” with a fierce sense of humour as she ironically fills the role of the hurt and used lover, flipping it around as if to chuckle and say, “You think you’re using me?”
For her first foray into the major leagues, Clark treads heavily with swagger and sincerity – a true testament to her strength as an individual. Where most would play it safe with an album of placating, hook-driven schmaltz, that’s not St. Vincent’s game. She’s forging ahead, tackling prescient social, cultural and philosophical issues with a digital, neo-grunge dissonance and flipping off anyone who’s standing in her way. Clark’s ingenuity as a songwriter and her refusal to compromise make her one of the most talented and captivatingly sincere artists in the industry today.
By Nick Laugher
Illustration by Smokey Draws