Annie Clark finds strength in her own frank freakishness on powerful and direct fourth album
“A smile is more than baring teeth”, sings St Vincent on ‘Every Tear Disappears’. But you can spin that sentiment backwards, too: the baring of teeth doesn’t necessarily imply a smile, and in St Vincent’s case, it could mean something altogether more menacing. Beneath Annie Clark’s unassuming exterior, we’ve got used to hearing notes of perversity: on 2011’s ‘Strange Mercy’ she begged for a surgeon to cut her up (‘Surgeon’), was buried by her own children (in the video to ‘Cruel’) and turned a sweet French affair into an afternoon of S&M (‘Chloe In The Afternoon’). On her first album she begged a man to marry her so she could leave him (‘Marry Me’). By her second, she was ‘Laughing With A Mouth Full Of Blood’.
‘St Vincent’ is her fourth solo album, coming on the heels of a celebrated collaboration with David Byrne last year. It’s the sound of an artist no longer battling to prove herself; where once she used her idiosyncrasies like weapons, here she lays them bare. When Clark sings “I love you more than Jesus” on ‘I Prefer Your Love’, it’s all sweetness. When she sings “Truth is ugly, I feel ugly too” on ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’, it’s an appeal to directness and the closest she’s ever come to writing an anthem, complete with a synth bridge so willfully hammy it borders on muzak. Clark has spoken admiringly in interviews about seeing Byrne’s fans dance during the Talking Heads songs on the ‘Love This Giant’ tour. On ‘St Vincent’, her songs are still built from small, complex fragments, but they’re also pitched at getting a physical reaction. ‘Prince Johnny’, with its staccato guitars, swings breezily between verse and singalong chorus, and ‘Digital Witness’ starts with rigid brass stabs straight off ‘Love This Giant’, before loosening up with a busy hi-hat and a disco pulse.
A cynic might say that ‘St Vincent’ has a more accessible sound because it’s Clark’s first record since she signed to a major label – Universal imprint Republic. But there’s also a new confidence here, the product of four albums of hard work and a tour with an artist who’s made a career out of being an autocrat and outsider (she affectionately described her relationship with Byrne to one interviewer as “a couple of freaks”). Clark has frequently written about trying to please: that she’ll “make a living telling people what they want to hear” on ‘Champagne Year’, or that she spent the summer “on my back” on ‘Surgeon’. This album is about solo pursuits: putting the trash out and masturbating on ‘Birth In Reverse’, taking all her clothes off during a walk in the Texan brush on ‘Rattlesnake’ or tripping out on sedatives in hotel rooms during a “lonely, lonely winter” on ‘Huey Newton’.
Clark’s readiness to be freakish and alone has translated into her songwriting, which is bolder than ever, and out to connect. ‘St Vincent’ isn’t a huge departure from ‘Strange Mercy’. It sounds like that record rewritten after a large scotch – smouldering, slightly undone, an easier listen. Zapping synths on ‘Psychopath’ and ‘Huey Newton’ add a dreamy, space-age touch, transporting her from the Lynchian suburbs of ‘Strange Mercy’ into the present, where machines are the windows to our reality, and nothing happens unless it is posted online (‘Digital Witness’). The virtuosity and intellectualism of ‘Strange Mercy’ are tempered with tunes written for dancing; for feeling. “It’s not the potion, it’s the magic that I seek”, she sings on ‘Every Tear Disappears’. On ‘St Vincent’, that magic is within reach.