Numerous reviews of St. Vincent’s new self-titled album begin with a story about the way that the album starts—a song called “Rattlesnake.” The song is about an experience that St. Vincent had while walking down a country road in West Texas, after finishing her latest tour. She removed all her clothes to feel more integrated into the wilderness, was frightened by a rattlesnake and ran all the way home. The somewhat biblical nature of the anecdote, combined with Annie Clark’s stage name “St. Vincent” and the salaciousness of imagining a woman naked outdoors, make the story difficult for reviewers to resist. But music writers are also no doubt relieved to find a straightforward, easily digestible story that they can use to introduce an album that is frequently abstract and difficult to interpret.
This is Annie Clark’s fourth studio album as a solo artist. Clark’s music has always been edgy, undefinable, and cagey, pushing at the boundaries of genre and composition. There was a sweetness and weirdness in her first album, Marry Me, that developed into a darkness in Actor that became almost unsettling in Strange Mercy. She is well known for her guitar skills, her complex and unorthodox arrangements, and the use of multiple instruments in her recordings. Her music has a kind of anxious intensity that holds a listener’s attention and never becomes depressive, or even soothing. On the closing track of St. Vincent, “Severed Crossed Fingers,” the rhythmic melody almost lulls you into a sense of relaxation before rising into a discordant crescendo.
After her third solo album, Clark recorded an impressive collaboration with David Byrne called Love This Giant. What was most astounding about Love This Giant was the extent to which it felt like a true partnership between the two artists. It didn’t feel like a David Byrne album featuring Annie Clark’s vocals, which is what I was worried about when it first came out. Clark’s songwriting style and her masterful guitar skills are easily identifiable on many of the tracks. Now, the influence of her work with Byrne is apparent on her new album. Tracks like “Digital Witness”—a horn-heavy song that grapples with the numbing qualities of technology and the performative nature of contemporary society—seem to bear a trace of Byrne's style.
Clark’s latest album represents another step in her transformation into an archetype, a character. Her stage name of St. Vincent always forged a distance between her musical persona and her real-life identity of Annie Clark, and that gap is more apparent than ever on the cover of her new album, where she gazes directly into the lens of the camera, a regal and alien empress, and in the vacant stare and robotic movements of her video for “Digital Witness.” We are accustomed to examining an artist’s body of work in an effort to find out about their true selves, their personal experiences and who they really are, but an investigation of the tracks on St. Vincent offers no more an understanding of these things than any of her other albums. Instead, they continue to cloud and complicate an image of Clark, but ultimately, they offer something more.
Although Clark never addresses feminism directly (her lyrics are too carefully masked), her descriptions on this new album of a woman hitting the walls, fighting to be unbound from a life that is too small and constricting for her, reveal themes that any feminist can identify with. On the album’s second track, “Birth in Reverse,” she sings, “Laugh all you want, but I want more/ ‘Cause what I’m swearing, I never sworn before.” Her innovative and larger-than-life style as both a performer and songwriter is an act of resistance in a musical scene that expects women to stay safely within the boundaries of singer-songwriter territory. Her music, on this new album and on her previous ones, is frequently harsh and agitating, disquieting for the listener in a way that is distinctly unfeminine. On “Bring Me Your Loves,” she growls and screeches over the haze of electric feedback, demanding, “Bring me your loves/ All of your loves, your loves/ I wanna love them too, you know?”