There’s a type of beauty in desolation. “I was in far, far West Texas, at a friend of mine’s cattle ranch, a place that’s been in her family for years and years and years. And I was walking around, and I was alone, and I thought that it would elevate the experience to take my clothes off and be one with nature and all these things.” As Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, explains her surroundings in an interview with NPR, you can practically feel the heat of the desert around her; see the miles upon miles of expansive nothingness. But then things go terribly wrong. “I turned my head just slightly, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a rattlesnake. And I just took off running.” And there we have the story of how the first song off of the guitarist’s newest, self-titled album, came to be. Fittingly dubbed “Rattlesnake”, Clark’s near-death experience sets the tone for the rest of the album. St. Vincent lightly brushes the inherent beauty of that desolation, lets you practically taste it—right up until Clark’s wrath engulfs you in her very own form of beauty: chaos.
If you take a listen to St. Vincent’s discography, you’ll be able to see this chaos slowly come to the forefront of Clark’s music. The snarling eruption of lyrics she exudes throughout St. Vincent is surprising, but it’s been heard before. This dark part of Clark was present in all of her past efforts, but it’s with St. Vincent that this part of her we’ve only gotten glimpses of finally bubbles to the surface. It gives St. Vincent an intoxicating air of confidence, almost like the entire album is Clark’s victory lap. But with confidence comes stability, and just when you think you’re safe, paranoia springs from Clark’s guitar with searing hatred, and it’s anything but stable.
This paranoia stems mostly from a distrust of the internet, as many of the tracks focus on the modern age and our attentiveness to anything with a screen. Single “Digital Witness” is a perfect example of this unease with the line, “People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window,” being repeated throughout the track. Yet while Clark may vent her distrust of anything digital, the way she does it is almost satirical. Clark herself has deemed the cover of the album as a way to portray herself as a “near-future cult leader.” She then delivers lines like “Live children blind psychics/ Turned online assassins” from track “Huey Newton” innocently and prettily, with just the hint of a wink in her eye. Clark’s fascination with the power these cultists and internet trolls really have on a person can be found in almost every track on St. Vincent, but in a subtle and unobtrusive fashion.
The St. Vincent you see on the cover of this latest album may look different than the St. Vincent you are accustomed to seeing, but that doesn’t mean that the sound that you know and love is gone. It’s quite the opposite, actually. St. Vincent is essentially the perfect embodiment of the various projects Clark has been a part of. The grooviness of Cruel Mercy and her past albums is present, and the blasting horns from her compilation with David Byrne make an appearance, albeit in an abrasive electronic form.
Clark’s guitar skills have never been in question, but St. Vincent showcases her talent more than any St. Vincent album yet. Almost every track has a standout guitar moment, but nothing comes close to the utter magnificence of the breakdown on “Huey Newton” – it really is something else. Then there is “Regret”, which sports a groovy, off-kilter jam, and “Birth in Reverse”, which has an impressive spattering of guitar that makes you wonder why Clark didn’t jam like this on her earlier work.
While the guitar work symbolizes the chaos that Clark brings to the album, St. Vincent also includes some pretty damn catchy melodies as well. “Prince Johnny” is a gorgeous song with smart and quirky lines like: “Remember the time we went and snorted/ That piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted.” It’s also got an intoxicating hook, allowing Clark to show everyone that she can sing beautifully and rip apart a guitar solo with relative ease. Moments like these are few and far between, as most of these soft, intimate scenes are abruptly taken from the listener in the form of Clark snarling lyrics or gnashing her guitar. But when these rare occurrences come up, it’s hard to let them out of your mind. These moments showcase the epitome of that open expanse she found herself in while in Texas, only to let that beauty be replaced by fury as soon as the rattlesnake arrived.
St. Vincent isn’t an album to be taken lightly. It’s a dense but catchy record that is enamored with the dark possibilities of our future, while also allowing St. Vincent to perfect the sound that she has worked with on her past three albums. Annie Clark didn’t think outside of the strange little box that is now owned completely by her, but she refined and perfected every little thing that we knew and loved about her music. Some may dislike this lack of artistic progress, but to me St. Vincent is everything I wanted from Clark’s fourth try, and she can only move forward from here. Closing the album is “Severed Crossed Fingers”, and it’s probably the best way Clark could have ended the destruction of the senses that is St. Vincent. It’s a jarringly introspective tune that is bleak and beautiful at the same time. The track serves as the final stop of the journey that Clark’s rage whipped you across, back to that desolate place where she first saw the rattlesnake. But that beauty that you first felt is gone, forever ruined by the chaos that she shared with you. When that final note plays out, you don’t feel beauty. You feel vulnerability.