Sunday, February 23, 2014

Music Review - "St. Vincent" by St. Vincent

A review of St. Vincent after the jump:

St. Vincent has a way of letting us know exactly what we're in for within the first minute of each record she releases. "Now, Now" opens with a dose of crystal-clear, vocally pristine, medium-tempo pop, and while it (referring to the song and the entirety of Marry Me) does get stranger as it goes on, the album is defined by Annie Clark's luminous voice and a series of wildly varied but consistently lush and relatively straightforward melodies. Actor's considerably more experimental theatricality is indicated the first time we hear the slightly off-kilter first words of "The Strangers"—as though Clark is trying to contort a series of poetic words into a space they don't really fit—in consort with a light as air arrangement in the background. And "Chloe in the Afternoon" is the first of many spacious and distorted soundscapes on 2011's brilliant Strange Mercy.

Now she gives us "Rattlesnake", and one could hardly imagine a more magnificently insistent opener to St. Vincent's most musically immediate—and finest, as fond as I am of those earlier works—release to date. This thing flat-out sounds like a rattlesnake, sliding along close to the ground over a jittery synth-driven arrangement. St. Vincent has always had a gift for writing hooks, but few to this point have burrowed into the mind as quickly (or as deeply) as when she sings "Am I the only one, in the only world?" It's clear from this one song that here talent for inventive and evocative—and at times quite cryptic—lyrics has not faltered either; at one point she references Seurat's pointillism in describing a desert landscape. This is song of the year level material: a nimble and infectious dance track, but with sense of chaos just underneath the surface (chaos that eventually comes to the forefront in the form of a screaming guitar solo).

Here's the thing, though: "Rattlesnake" is maybe the fifth or sixth best track on St. Vincent. As strong as Strange Mercy was, the songwriting here is just on another level. It's every bit as complex; just try and make sense of exactly what's going on rhythmically in "Bring Me Your Loves". But also try not to have those four words (which form the basis for the track's driving chorus) stuck in your head for hours afterwards. St. Vincent has written song after song that simply pulses with musical momentum; the occasionally languid grooves that made some of the deeper cuts off Strange Mercy or Actor a bit hard to get into initially (though once you do, they're brilliant) are nowhere to be found here. Even the slower songs are built around dynamic melodies, like "Prince Johnny's" verse-chorus shift from a wistful walking contour to desperate, fervent prayer. Religion briefly enters the equation again later on in "I Prefer Your Love", another quiet standout that seems to be about the singer's love for her mother, and how she prefers her mother's love to that of Jesus. With its alternately soothing and gently sweeping melody, it might be the album's most purely gorgeous track.

Not that St. Vincent is all made up of beautiful ballads. Elsewhere, Clark has composed several songs that feel like instant pop classics: but again, pop classics with a slightly abrasive edge. The most obvious is perhaps "Digital Witness" (which ironically mixes its sharp observations on technology and modern life with a highly electronic-driven arrangement), but "Every Tear Disappears" is every bit as delightfully insidious, repeating its catchy three word refrain like a mantra until it's difficult to not feel uplifted, whatever your given mood happens to be when listening to it. (At least, until the ravishing but bleak closer "Severed Crossed Fingers" arrives to crushes your soul.) Then there's "Birth in Reverse", the album's first single, and yet another phenomenally catchy yet sonically adventurous composition. The variety on display here is just tremendous, at one point switching on four successive tracks from plaintive fare ("Prince Johnny") to distorted rock (the second half of "Huey Newton") to straight-up pop ("Digital Witness") and back to beautiful calmness ("I Prefer Your Love").

In comparison to Strange Mercy and ActorSt. Vincent doesn't really have much of a thematic arc. It's more a sonic statement of purpose, which might be part of the reason for the self-titled name. The subject matter is really all over the place, though ambivalence towards technology does pop up from time to time, as well as a sense of weariness on tracks like "Prince Johnny" and "Severed Crossed Fingers". Yet this music sounds neither ambivalent (and synths figure prominently in many tracks, not just "Digital Witness" and "Rattlesnake") nor tired, but rather more alive and exuberant than almost anything released in recent memory. If there's a constant to the album, it's that every song is a masterpiece, and that they're clearly the inspired and borderline unhinged work of the great St. Vincent. Later on in "Rattlesnake" she answers her earlier question: "I'm not the only one, in the only world." That may be true. But she's one of but a handful of current artists making music as thrilling as this.

Best Tracks: "Prince Johnny", "Digital Witness", "I Prefer Your Love", "Severed Crossed Fingers"

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