I’ll make this easy for you: Annie Clark’s fourth solo album recording as St. Vincent has received almost universally good reviews; I’m not about to buck the trend. St. Vincent is her best work yet; from start to finish it stabs when a stab is what’s needed, and floats above when it isn’t. Throughout, Clark sings casually acerbic lyrics with her usual aplomb, reminding us that as well as an off-kilter menace, there’s real beauty in her voice. She wraps seductive melodies around sharp and thrusting instrumentation; it’s amazing the things you can say and get away with it if you keep a good smile. Or, as Clark has put it:
I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral.
The first half of St. Vincent is, frankly, more or less perfect. From the jittery opening of Rattlesnake, these half dozen songs take you on a skittering, tumbling journey through humdrum, everyday weirdness. Sardonic, playful, witty and dystopian imagery is allied with Clark’s subtle but not inconsiderable guitar prowess. As assorted instrumental clunks and dings play off against horns and synths there’s more than a hint of the influence of her work with David Byrne that produced the 2012 album Love This Giant.
The two singles that have preceded the album’s release - Birth in Reverse and Digital Witness - both sit in this first half. Both rattle and stomp, both unsettle with their matter-of-factness: Birth in Reverse with its offhand notions of normalcy - “just an ordinary day / take out the garbage / masturbate”; Digital Witness with its squared-off assault on the social chattering classes and cult of celebrity - “People turn the TV on it looks just like a window”, and “What’s the point of even sleeping? If I can’t show it you can’t see me. What’s the point of doing anything?”. It’s a cheeky dig, you know: Clark isn’t herself shy of twitter, and the marketing campaign for the album has resulted in near-ubiquity, from newspaper columns to performances at fashion shows. St Vincent has been seen, and been visible, more or less everywhere in the lead up to the album’s release.
Prince Johnny and Huey Newton provide a calm between these two storms, showcasing Clark’s versatility. On the latter she mixes angelic vocals in the upper-range with a raw fuzz-out in the second half of the track, while the former’s ghostly backing choir and tender vocal are highlights on an album made up almost entirely of highlights.
The perfect first half of the album is rounded off by I Prefer Your Love. And if it could all just finish there, what a perfect way to end a perfect mini-album; a gently gliding synth progression, it’s pure and uncomplicated: the perfect respite from the heady mix of everything that’s gone before.
Not that the second half is bad, by any means. Just a slight tailing off, is all. Regret is another great staccato and melody melange, with a distorted guitar workout to finish. It’s a merry-go-round of instrumentation; every bar seems to bring some new sound to the fore. Bring Me Your Loves is fierce, fuzzy and frenetic, but straightforward compared to earlier tracks, while Psychopath shimmies in and out pleasantly but not memorably. Similarly, Every Tear Disappears shows what St Vincent could sound like if Clark reined in her ambition and settled for one great hook at a time. In other words, better than most, but half as good as it could be.
Severed Crossed Fingers is a smooth way to end the album, and a reminder of just how good St Vincent is at its best. It’s a slow downer to go out on and a melancholic finish: brutal imagery camouflaged by a tender melody. When it’s over, you might want to take a moment to recover while you consider just how good this album is. You’ll definitely want to give it another spin.