Already at the early stages of her career, there were many reasons to think that the Annie Clark’s creative and nifty songwriting would eventually take her to the main arenas. From her Beggar Banquet released debut, and two 4AD sequels, she is now ready for her major label debut with her new self-titled album. NPR’s Katie Presley used the word “fearless” to describe Clark; a spot-on remark that explain why she attempts trying off-kilter ideas that most “pop musicians” (used in the loosest way) would shy away from. But it wasn’t a clear-cut start. Even if her first two albums showed a staggering amount of brilliant ideas, she didn’t quite manage to manifest these into close-knit realizations. Yet on both these albums, it stood clear that Clark was on of contemporary music’s most unapologetic and yes, fearless, artists.
It’s a fine line between ambitious artistry and inflated self-importance, a line Clark can balance with both eyes closed. You never feel that she creates art for art’s sake, or that her music feels evasive or pompous. And over time she seems to have grown an innate, almost subconscious ability to weight the risks she takes against rigorous and melodic songwriting. On 2011’s Strange Mercy, she combined art and pop in bold yet immediate ways. That album was one of my favorites of that year, making it easy for me to see her as a present-day version of Kate Bush or David Bowie. Incidentally, two artists that seem most apt comparing St. Vincent with, if such a thing should feel necessary. Like Bush, Clark has an ability to wrap her narratives in sonically exploring trajectories that are not so much experimental, as they are distinctively original, without being too overtly complex and unreachable. And like Bowie, her music seems to exist in its own universe, but just as effortlessly, she can open up the door to her curious but naked emotions.
Clark seems to take leaps rather than steps in confidence and imagination with each new album. As I’ve already mentioned, I highly regard Strange Mercy, so it’s not weather St. Vincent is a better or a worse albums than its prequel. Only time will tell these apart, but there is no doubt that her ideas are more fully formed on here, even perhaps more memorable. While earthbound isn’t normally a word you would use to describe St. Vincent, there are songs here that, relatively speaking, do seem more direct and readily digestible, even for those who haven’t before felt the connection with her music. Even more staggering is each track’s ability to bring something different to the albums overall sensation. For instance, “Bring me Your Loves” is perhaps the most energetic track she’s ever put on tape, and should get even the most non-compliant festival crowd on their feet. Opener “Rattlesnake” combines jittery synthesizers and funky guitars that sound like the unlikely duet of Prince and the aforementioned Bush. The processed horns on early single “Digital Witness” are used to create staggering riffs that sounds like something Mathew Herbert could’ve cooked-up on Róisín Murphy’s brilliant solo album from a decade ago. “Huey Newton” shows that you don’t need eye-catching hooks to write excellent pop melodies, and then there are “Birth In Reverse” and “Psychopath” that create the perfect balance between straightforward elements and what some would call “eccentricities”.
While there isn’t a single weak link on St. Vincent, it’s the slower paced creations that stand out the most for me. Tracks like “Prince Johnny”, “I Prefer Your Love” and “Severed Crossed Fingers” are melodically direct while expressing truck-loads of beauty in ways I haven’t heard before from Clark. In the past, she has been accused of keeping her audience at arm’s length; an artist easier to admire, than to gain emotional strength from. These songs prove the exact opposite. When she sings “But all the good in me is because of you, It’s true”, and later “I, I prefer your love, To Jesus”, it feels so earnest and heartfelt, it is almost as if she sang explicitly for you. In reality “I Prefer Your Love” is dedicated to her mother and is perhaps the most emotionally powerful song she has ever written. On “Severed Crossed Fingers”, the albums closing power ballad of sort, reaches anthem like proportions in its strong sense of nostalgic melancholia, and should become a sure encore on her future performances.
To indulge in some self-reflection, I think that I’m unintentionally putting music I love in two different categories. Either, a song moves me in some unexplainable way, or it challenges my intellect. But on a rare third occasion, music can speak both to my heart and my brain. Ever since Strange Mercy, St. Vincent’s music seems to fall into that third singular category. Of course, she’s not alone there; for a person who breathes in and breathes out music on life’s every occasion, these artists have piled up over the years. But she is fairly unique in being a contemporary artist that can pull off a major label release without sacrificing any of the unforced novelty that made her former, independent, records such strange but wonderful experiences. I mentioned Róisín Murphy earlier, another artist that Clark shares a lot of similarities with. At least in her strenght of writing accessible yet challenging pop songs that are fashioned by widely original ideas. I don’t mean pop here in a commercial sense. Murphy, as St. Vincent in her earlier stages, never made any commercial footprint, and Murphy’s label, EMI, eventually decided to drop her after two brilliant but non-profit making albums. Instead, I use pop here as a vehicle to describe music that is wide-reaching in its ability to draw the listener in with fascinating hooks and transcending melodies. And while there is a lot of that on St. Vincent, it’s also a remarkable in shape-shifting between disparate moods and tempos. Ultimately, this is an album that makes you dance, cry, think and feel in 40 short minutes. Only truly great pop records have the capacity to do just that. I would go as far as saying that she is rather alone in the possibility of, if not changing, than certainly challenging the future landscape of pop music. Now on a more wide-reaching label, that isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. And while she remains far less popular than she is talented, I wouldn’t be surprised, if in ten years’ time, we will look back and remember Annie Clark as one of the most important pop musicians of our time.