Of all the record’s released in 2014, St. Vincent’s eponymous effort has the most to say about the times in which we live. Both explicitly and implicitly, St. Vincent takes on a world of pandering ambivalence and inaction, where our lives are enacted and justified in the digital space as our analogue existence becomes ever more tedious.
The contrast is clear in Annie Clark’s eyes. How do we define meaning in a world where our physical actions are offered no external/communal validation? Whereas the fragments of ourselves we spew online are proof to an infinite audience that, not only do we exist, but we matter.
It’s not hard to see that this quasi-robotic starlet values first hand experience in the meatspace, but her lyric sheet offers a (perhaps unintentional) argument for the opposite point of view.
The alluring dystopian death march of “Digital Witness” sardonically skewers lives slavishly beholden to social media: “What’s the point of even sleeping, if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me: what’s the point of doing anything?" But "Birth In Reverse" hardly validates the alternative, as Annie depicts a depressive (but wholly truthful) insularity: "What an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate”. Is the latter a function of the former or is her eponymous masterpiece an assault on passivity and second hand existence in all its forms?
Worse still, if we do embrace our analogue existence we are only met with more synthetic fiction (“fake knife, real ketchup”). So what’s a girl to do, eh?
Social critiques to one side, it’s worth reflecting on St. Vincent the musician. The soundscapes being created here are enchanting, but never easy. Annie has always had a bite that jars and she remains a creature of sharp edges who loves to stew on a ballad and rip her guitar to shreds. The contrast between the heavenly serenity of “Prince Johnny” or “Huey Newton” and the atonal skittishness of “Rattlesnake” and “Bring Me Your Love” is jarring but never sheer. This record holds together through bombarding power pop chords and demented glitches in the system.
That might sound like an empty platitude, but it’s vitally important for an artist who has stuck in the craw of so many. For St. Vincent to go pop (go serene, go high concept) is not a regression or an abdication of creativity: it’s a brazen gambit. Being alien and awkward is easy in many senses; being an otherworldly fembot penning soaring, assumption busting pop songs is something else entirely. This is a record that showcases delicacy, only to viscously pull the rug out from underneath. Time will stand still as you twirl weightlessly through space one moment, while Annie prepares to drop a seventeen-storey skyscraper on your skull the next.
St. Vincent has the honour of not only being Annie Clark’s most ambitious album to date, but also, by far and away her best. She is no longer making contorted obtuse music: with this record she’s thrown a cup of arthritic acid in the face of beauty and produced, not a hideous monstrosity, but something ornate.
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