Music You Should be Listening to: St.Vincent
This past September, Annie Clark released her third album, Strange Mercy. Not only has Clark had a hand in some of the most interesting projects to come out this decade, but she has had a hand in producing and composing her own work.
Prior to her solo project, St. Vincent, Clark was a member of The Polyphonic Spree, which was one of the bravest groups to come out of Texas in the early 2000s. The band explored orchestral horizons of influences like The Beach Boys and The 5th Dimension. Decked in their signature white robes, they performed with Bright Eyes and played at South by Southwest down in Austin.
She then joined folk sensation Sufjan Steven’s touring band for his first few albums and was also on board for his iconic fifty-states project. Stevens’ albums incorporate theological themes, American traditional folk inspiration and frustration with prayer and expression. From the very start of her career, Clark was never short for inspiration. In fact, she was saturated with it.
So when her first album, Marry Me was released, it contained obvious traces of her past projects. On the album she is credited with vocals, drum programming, triangle, bass and piano, but she used her guitar as a crutch. While her talent was obvious, the raw emotion only surfaced during a few songs like "Paris is Burning" and "Your Lips are Red." Marry Me's potential is eerily untapped.
In her sophomore album, Actor, she writes from the perspective of restless oppressed women fighting against social currents. In the songs, she immersed herself so deeply into the characters she created that she lost her identity. I almost forgot that there was an Annie singing behind every song.
Now comes Strange Mercy which, to the delight of critics and fans, is her strongest album so far. Her quaint voice bounces around dark, upsetting lyrics, and she introduces more inventive guitar skills to craft songs that are both powerful and intelligent. The opening track, “Chloe in the Afternoon,” references the obscure French film, Chloe in the Afternoon, which explores a man’s guilt during an affair. The song takes the affair to a darker, more questionable place than the film did, seemingly serving as a continuation of it. Her light voice guides the song, but her heavy signature guitar riff gives the song the edge that the story implies.
Her creativity is carefully woven throughout the entire album. While she tells each song from a different perspective, each one still remains personal to Clark. Her twists on melodies and instrumental experiments are more sophisticated than either of her two preceding albums, but she still preserves her signature naivete that made everyone fall in love with her. Many of her songs like “Cheerleader” sound like lullabies before she comes in with the hook followed by an empowering chorus.
A Champagne Year is also referenced in one of the harder songs on the album, “Northern Lights,” before getting its own song a few tracks later. A Champagne Year is when you turn the age of the day of the month that is your birthday. And this Sep. 28 Clark had hers.
Although the theme of celebrating life is explicit in the term itself, Clark treats it as more of the ominous light at the end of the tunnel. As much as she is celebrating youth, she is mourning the loss of it.
She sings, “It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s the one we got” in “Champagne Year.” There is the cringe of regret, of accepting fate and pulling together her influences and experiences to create an album that is as much of a reflection of her life as it is an expression of it. The songs resonate with the listener. As much as she seems to get under her own skin, she also works her way under ours.
The album is both cynical and witty. Her instrumental patterns are clever, and her lyrics are like prose. Almost anything could come out of her mouth, and she could make it sound nice and innocent. Some songs are ironic, and I don’t know whether to feel sad or sorry for the people she sings about, including her, or to go along with the beautiful complex melodies and ignore the words leading them.
I think St. Vincent does what so many female artists fail to do, which is not only to have a pretty or powerful voice, but to have a relevant voice. She makes statements in her songs that reach far beyond the emotional range of heartbreak. And it’s about time. I could give a list of ten female artists with beautiful voices, pretty faces and fine pleasing songs right off the top of my head. But I can only think of a few today who are able to put together complicated, intricate twisted streams of thought and allusions into songs that are not only listenable, but challenging.
St. Vincent has the Nabokovian effect of making her audience empathize not with her misery or sorrow, which is easy, but with her struggles, thoughts and sanity. Strange Mercy is meant to be internalized. It is made up of emotions as well as notes and chords. Annie Clark does not search for sanity; she explores the absence of it. Rather than casting out her demons, Clark has brought them along with her to create one of the best albums of the year.