Key Tracks: “Birth In Reverse” “Prince Johnny”
St. Vincent’s previous album, the 2012 duet with David Byrne “Love This Giant,” got a little more of a mixed reaction than her previous three albums. But I haven’t stopped listening to the record – I know the whole album by heart. On the album, Byrne takes St. Vincent, moniker for the multi-talented Annie Clark, and brings her out of her comfort zone. Her previous albums were already wholly separate from anything else happening in alternative, but with Byrne’s introduction of horns and a bigger accompaniment, he brought her out of her timidity and almost forced her to take bigger and more fearless risks. Pictured above is Annie Clark, once slightly awkward in old Youtube clips, now purple-haired, staring down at us. “St. Vincent” is bolder and more fulfilling than any of her previous albums – and that’s not exactly a small statement.
Before I get to into the album, I should say, as I have said when necessary, that I am a huge huge St. Vincent fan. I learned “Birth in Reverse” by heart within 24 hours of it’s release. This year and last, I’ve spent Feb. 14th celebrating St. Vincentines Day, an excuse to get away from any standards usually set towards that date. And as I write this, I sit anxiously knowing I’ll be seeing her in ten days. If you’re reading this in Boston, look for me at the show, screaming, singing and just generally embarrassing myself.
So, “St. Vincent” is a step in a new direction. It’s bolder, and although it technically isn’t all that different from her other works, it has a more boundless feeling to it. Without really changing her sound, she has managed to still take herself in a new direction. That’s no more apparent than on the album’s best song, “Birth In Reverse.” The rough, almost factory-machine opening is a staunch stance against most other reserved indie singers. The song’s opening lyrics: “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate” don’t exactly hurt that stance. St. Vincent has never been one to shy away from topics that might be taboo or a little warped, but on “St. Vincent,” she sounds more confident than she ever has. And with songs like “I Prefer Your Love,” with a chorus centered around “I prefer your love / To Jesus,” confidence is a needed trait.
As a fan of every one of St. Vincent’s albums, I have felt that the latter halves often don’t hold up to the former halves – whether because they’re a little too slow, or the mix of synth and guitar does not hold up as well. But “St. Vincent” is just solid throughout. The album’s first half is definitely better – all three of the pre-released songs are in the first five – but there are few forgettable moments. As always, she combines a heavy amount of synthesizers with her underrated guitar work. It works well across the album, but might work the best on the penultimate “Every Tear Disappears.” Only the guitar-heavy “Regret” and the midtempo closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” lag behind the rest of the tracks, not quite as original or memorable.
Although a strong singer in her own right, St. Vincent’s songs usually focus more on the music and lyrics. But there’s one song on this album, “Prince Johnny,” that’s worth mentioning for the vocals. The song builds to a long climax that’s beautifully sung, and drenched in an encompassing vocal echo that’s almost bone-chilling. It’s refreshing, in a way, to hear Clark finally devote a song more towards her vocals. Clark’s voice has never sounded even close to subpar – but a song like “Prince Johnny” has been needed for a while.
This album’s eponymous naming was kind of a happy accident, but it’s very fitting. This album is what St. Vincent does best – synthy, guitar-heavy indie-pop; equally weird and beautiful, in the best ways of both. And it’s self-titled, because it’s her best album yet. Each song is unique. Some simple, some complex, all great. I know it’s only February, but I’d wager that this will go down as one of the best alternative albums of 2014.
If you like this, try: The National’s “Trouble Will Find Me.” Maybe it came to mind because Clark herself provides back-up vocals on the album’s/band’s/2013’s best song, “Sea of Love.” But the album is related in that it’s similar to everything they have done prior, but just even better.
-By Andrew McNally