by Cara Giaimo
The second time I saw St. Vincent live, she fucked me up. It was during a slowed-down version of "The Bed," and she had turned on some purple lights and twisted the bass down monster-low, so deep that when she held one note too long, something way back in my left ear crumpled. I clapped my hand over it expecting blood. There wasn't any, and a few days later the pain had faded out, but I walked around for weeks with a buzz in the third quadrant of my head, like a weird extra layer in between me and the world. It was as though she were telling me, hey, try it out, see how you like it.
Annie Clark, alias St. Vincent, released her fourth album (also alias St. Vincent) two weeks ago. The first song, "Rattlesnake," starts off with a sidewinder bassline, and pretty soon Clark comes in, all by herself:
"Follow the power lines back from the road / no one around so I take off my clothes / am I the only one, in the only world?"
Right then, the drums hit. The rest of the song is a riot of sounds — helicopter guitars, triple-tracked harmonies, synths rearing around. If you could see it, it would look like a flock of birds. It peaks halfway through, after she hears that rattlesnake, and the melody leaps an octave — "I'm not the only one, in the only world!" She has talked a lot in interviews about how this is a true story, and it's a good one to tell journalists (she was walking around alone in the desert, naked! What a weird person!/What an adorable genius!/What a great headline!) It's also a great way to start an album that is about feeling like you are, truly, the only one in the only world — about all the things that conspire to cause that feeling, and all the different ways we try to court and break through it.
All her albums are about this. The first one I got ahold of was her debut, Marry Me. I bought it after going on a whim to see her in a little club in Northampton, where she told stories about eating orange slices at soccer games and played sitting down. Whenever she soloed she moved her head left to right to no beat I could discern. At the ends of songs she seemed to return to the club, the earth, sort of halfheartedly, so I bought her album.
At the end of the summer I was surprised by my first Real Bad Breakup and I spent a semester walking from class to class with clouds amassing over me — heartbreak, loneliness, regret — all very purple and heavy, that special way they are that first time they find you. I'd return to my dorm and spend the evening lying in my best friend's bed listening to "Marry Me," in which Clark had somehow taken these clouds and translated them into claustrophobic violins, parlor pianos, and cymbal avalanches. Elliptical lyrics about burning cities, dead picture-perfect marriages, and trying to coax life out of pearls all orbited but never overwhelmed her blue flame of a voice, strong and steady and vulnerable. I didn’t think I even liked the album. I’d flip from my back to my stomach and repeat the same things about how I couldn’t quite get into it. But I kept putting it on.
At some point I picked up Actor, after reading something about how Clark had written it as imaginary film scores for her favorite movies — exhausted after a tour, she’d holed up with a television and Garageband, and this is what had happened. I liked this idea of making art that came not from relationships with other people, but from relationships with other art — which, after all, is what gets us through a lot of trouble, especially loneliness. Your headphones can’t break up with you. That one life-affirming solo always picks up the phone. Actor is technicolor and ostentatious like a good movie score, and wide-eyed and reverent like a good fan. I’ve kept it in intermittent rotation for four years now, and wherever I am in life, when I put it on, the songs soak immediately into my mental landscape, reawakening old parts of myself and letting me hear how I’ve changed. To steal a chorus, they’re just the same, but brand new.
Strange Mercy marked Clark’s entrance into that echelon of artists the critical masses look forward to hearing from, and so came with months of buildup, in the form of interviews and music videos and thirty-second clips. I listened to leaked track “Surgeon” so many times I thought I was going to pop a vertebra from this weird little thing the synth line makes me do with my neck. When the album finally came out I toted it from house to house on Beacon Hill, where I worked as a gardener, and then brought it with me on the train, and then put it on while cooking, and then hummed it under my breath when I was required to talk to other people. “Neutered Fruit” evokes the beauty and brutality of romantic dependence in a way I wish I’d recognized back when I was listening to it three times a day. And the infinity guitars at the end of “Northern Lights” are such a close aural analogue of the kind of panic attack I experience that it felt like a dare to put it on. I stopped listening to it while driving after it made me miss the same exit twice in a row.
And now we have St. Vincent, which is being described as her most relevant album yet. The cover positions her as, in her words, "a near-future cult leader," with a pink plastic throne and go-ahead-try-me eyebrows. There are some songs about the internet, including "Huey Newton," which might be the first ever funk number about falling down a Wikipedia k-hole, and first single "Digital Witness," which asks "what's the point of doing anything?" if someone else can't watch you do it. But more than anything new, St. Vincent builds on the themes and sonic palettes Clark has been exploring since Marry Me. There's that same beauty-and-the-beast dichotomy between her voice and her guitar, and the sense that between the two of them she's able to express a wide swath of herself. "Regret" is my new dare-myself song, this time a too-accurate exploration of how it feels to wake up and suddenly remember all the shitty things you've done. "Who's the one / animal / all by yourself? / all of us" she asks, in a call-and-response with a chorus of her own voice. Then mocking stabs of sun-bright guitar cut through, and pile up on each other until you can't avoid opening your eyes any longer. I listen to it and feel like I'm the only one in the only world — and then also not, because clearly she's been there, too.
Sometimes you've got it together, sometimes you don't; sometimes you’re on the computer, sometimes you’re off the computer; sometimes you're heartbroken and sometimes you're alright. But you're always in your own head. By making her music about that fact, St. Vincent climbs in there with you and occasionally busts your eardrum. I just wish there was some way I could return the favor.