That Annie Clark’s new album as St. Vincent is self-titled is no aberration, no cop-out in the face of vacant inspiration. Just look at the eponymous collection’s Willo Perron-designed, Memphis Movement-inspired cover. Clark, perched high atop her modernist throne, exudes the sort of confidence and wit reserved only for those who’ve mastered a craft. Otherwise she’d just look ridiculous, tossing off another rococo selfie like so many of the characters Clark brings to life on songs like “Huey Newton” and “Digital Witness,” “entombed” by “the 0s and 1s.” No, though St. Vincent is the adventurous songwriter’s fourth album, posterity and its fickle memory may find a way to boil it down to Clark’s true ascension point. Because this is the first time we’ve seen and heard her so completely fearless, so completely tapped into her potential and so completely set apart from her peers. And she knows that as well as us. Ask yourself: Is it purely coincidental that Perron played a significant role in the creative direction for Drake and Kanye West? Given his talent, the designer would be in-demand regardless of those affiliations, but I can’t help but find at least a modicum of overlap between hip hop’s reigning elite and indie rock’s most inventive futurist.
Let’s take the gas off the pedal for a moment, though. The first three St. Vincent records stand plenty capable on their own and are in no way subsumed by the force of Clark’s latest work. 2007’s Marry Me bolted from the gate, ensuring any reference to her time in Polyphonic Spree or in Sufjan Stevens’ band should be noted merely for context. Clark arrived as a solo artist so fully formed that it was clear those stints only contributed to a looming success already foretold: She was born to do this and would’ve broken through with or without the aid of then-more prominent friends. 2009’s Disney-fied Actor and 2011’s sultry, Björk-imbued Strange Mercy cemented Clark in our minds as an artist whose subsequent work would, at the very least, always be worth spending a few days with, continuing the streak. Despite the nearly superfluous examples of brilliance and something approaching magic on St. Vincent’s predecessors, however, the new affair inarguably stands above. With her wild hair now an opaque Daphne Guinness gray, her slim frame clothed in shimmering haute couture and her blue-gray eyes affixed in a stoic Maleficent stare, Clark has transformed both literally and figuratively into an artist every bit as challenging as Ye or her erstwhile collaborator David Byrne. St. Vincent has a gravity that Clark’s peers will, or at least should, not ignore when making their own records from here on out.
Any doubts I had about Clark before St. Vincent could be attributed to two minor grievances: Marry Me, Actor and Strange Mercy each have a few missteps apiece, and collectively, though the songwriter arrived more fully formed than most, one sensed between the lines that she was still finding her way. St. Vincent, instead, entertains and provokes at every turn and is disarmingly self-assured. That effect is enhanced considerably when you take into account that Clark has essentially not taken a break since she arrived seven years ago. Indeed, it might behoove a doctoral student interested in the science of high performance to study Clark’s methods. Though, to be fair, the academic endeavor may turn depressing when scholars realize the Texan-turned-New Yorker is simply more gifted and probably more sleep-deprived than most of us.
In press materials for St. Vincent, Clark stated that she wanted the “groove to be paramount,” and, if you’ve heard the record, you know she hit her mark. The opener “Rattlesnake,” which is not at all metaphorical, lifts off with a lone jittery synth, which gives way to a flange-drenched rhythmic stomp and the warble of fleeting auxiliary noise, ending in a blistering cascade of multi-tracked shredding courtesy of Clark, a self-professed “pedal nerd.” The effect, as with most of the album, is somehow both steely and emotionally rich. Throughout St. Vincent, Clark juggles the two approaches masterfully, teasing the brain with virtuoso acrobatics while glaring straight at the heart with the overall power of the thing. I love that there are two ways of listening to St. Vincent: We can compartmentalize, standing in awe of the production and sheer skill on display, studying each flicker and nuance. Or we can sit back and let it work us over as the cohesive and pummeling statement that it is.
“Birth in Reverse,” “Digital Witness” (in competition with “Reflektor” for the decade’s best meditation on social media) and “Regret” light St. Vincent’s other vigorous fireworks displays, the former a sort of update on Faraquet-ian dance punk, the latter a revved-up “Temecula Sunrise” on steroids. But these reference points should be considered lightly: As in all things, Clark is very much doing her own thing. And, from the sound of a recent Salon interview, the influences here are more of a vintage Turkish variety than anything from Dischord Records.
Elsewhere Clark trades in mellower hues, as on the standout “Prince Johnny,” which has the songwriter acting as both participant and observer in a forlorn tale of affection for a friend or lover who’s “holding court in bathroom stalls.” I can’t help but wonder if it’s “Johnny” who shows up again in St. Vincent’s gorgeous closer, “Severed Crossed Fingers,” wherein Clark sighs, “Seeing double beats not seeing one of you.” Attempting to surmise the origin story of these songs can be tempting, especially in light of the road-heavy life she lives, but we’re better off leaving them be. Besides, Clark intones on “Digital Witness,” “this is no time for confessing.” Indeed, she “wants all of your mind.”
As if we had a say in the matter.