Annie Clark has met death. And they have danced. That is the premise of St. Vincent, a record as bone-chilling as it is physically liberating, as fun as it is downright freaky. In an interview months before its release, Clark explained how this was going to work: “I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral.” It sounds like a way of laughing in the face of tragedy, of making jubilance ex nihilo, but hearing St. Vincent, it’s obvious Clark meant something different. She wants to come out of her closest encounters with mortality’s grip having beaten the shit out of it. From its very first song – “Rattlesnake”, a wicked fast Western stand-off with the slithery beast that is death – St. Vincent is a hilarious, horrifying story about staying alive in your own crazy world.
To stay alive, you have to improvise. Clark is a master of that as she is obsessed with linguistic juxtaposition, mixing her penchant for writing opaque narratives with a wicked sense of intuition. Her art has often felt guarded because of this – on 2011’s Strange Mercy, she howled one particular lyric that sounded frustratingly unfinished: “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up.” It was more personal than a standard pop song’s second person address because it never followed through to a logical conclusion – it was the record’s moment to jump out of line, but Clark refrained. Instead she qualified it, distraught, with another unfinished thought: “I don’t know what.” That is Clark’s power: to make sense of her singular musical intellect with something just about human.
Clark’s songwriting has a peculiar gap to it, and St. Vincent’s best moments are the ones that happen between sense and nonsense, between the long story and the primal reaction to it. The record’s lyrics tie together disturbingly incomprehensible scenes, from dystopias to drug trips, with funky and freeing retreats. “Digital Witness”, a bulletin-board brass jam that calls back to Clark’s recent collaboration with David Byrne, bears the assertion that “people turn the TV on, it looks just like a window”, but then refutes it with her yelping, agog, “yah!” It’s the work of a dictator with a horn section and experience playing in the Talking Heads, Clark snapping out of her terrifying fixed gaze for a fit of manic laughter, all in the space of one chorus. On a record of dense pop tactics and ferocious buzz-saw guitar, it’s actually these little vocal nuggets, thrown way out of leftfield, that matter the most. They help the listener navigate St. Vincent’s dense experimentation with the mechanics of pop music, and offer respite from its hypnotic feel, which comes, partly, from its heavily utilisation of programmed drums. “Huey Newton” sees Clark trade her high-hitting vocal range for a lower-pitched scowl, which she again uses to make her impossible stories sound real: “Entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones,” she throws off, before squaring in on you: “You know?!” She repeats those two words and debases them in a dozen different ways, screaming them until we surrender, or else breathing them as if she’s grasping for air.
In these moments, St. Vincent is daring you to laugh. It points to its own ridiculousness like a perfectly brandished stamp. It sees how far it can go before you call it on its shit. It smirks when you don’t get it. Clark screams “you know?” on “Huey Newton” like we understand her – like we get where this record is coming from – but it’s a smug, rhetorical question, playing to the record’s special place between solipsism and omniscience. This record exists in Clark’s most private experiences and unexplainable dreams: “Huey Newton” came about by taking too much ambien and hallucinating an imaginary friend, and “Rattlesnake” was written about an encounter Clark had with an actual rattlesnake, in the Texan desert, naked. They should be funny, but they’re actually a profoundly sinister songs, the latter rattling around a distorted synth line, a heavily treated (and oh so St. Vincent) guitar riff, and a very anxious narrator. Clark heightens its tension with a click of her fingers, recreating her escape story as a cartoonish sprint. Her breathless delivery suddenly breaks out a higher, more strained octave, the kind that makes a song jump out of its skin and start all over again.
It makes sense that this record is titled St. Vincent. These are Clark’s stories, no matter how deranged. They speak thoroughly to her weird, wonderful existence and sound like no one else. It’s a kind of stylistic victory lap – “Digital Witness” is a fond tribute to Byrne, yes, but the rest of the record simply sounds like St. Vincent, Clark battling the psychedelic universe she’s invented for herself and doling out sage advice to the characters she’s sketched. It could have been called St. Vincent vs. the World, too, because its frenetic energy is meant to be too much for you, and its stories are supposedly too outrageous to walk among the living. When they are, Clark reads them off with devilish matter of fact. Before “Birth in Reverse” twists into signature Clark shape with its dry, sinister guitar texture and spontaneous breathing exercises, she reads off her daily routine: “Oh, what an ordinary day / take out the garbage, masturbate”. The line flits by, its commas audible, as if no one’s going to notice it compared with the song’s other components, like the triumphant but cruelly dashed jam that ends it. But it sticks out like a mission statement. Blogs snatched up “Birth in Reverse” before the whole of St. Vincent was available, and that lyric was a proud and uncompromising entry point – for once in Clark’s oeuvre, her shit-kicking was meant to be understood.
If St. Vincent owes itself to anything, it’s Clark’s post-Strange Mercy indulgence in spooky and punishing punk rock, from the Pop Group’s abstracta to Big Black’s straight and narrow shredding. It isn’t hardcore itself, but St. Vincent doesn’t give a fuck, and sounds weird doing it. It’s controlled by flat-lining drum patterns that fold seamlessly into whatever Clark is moulding her songs out of, be it “Birth In Reverse” and its space-fabric-ripping guitar, or “Prince Johnny” and its ambient sheen. In a way, the beats sound like Clark has everything else down and doesn’t need to worry about her music thumping – it will follow suit. This holds together St. Vincent and also makes it sound freed; Clark is busy doing weird shit like extracting the silliest notes out of an old keyboard on “Bring Me Your Loves”, or throwing herself through vocal hoops on “Severed Crossed Fingers” until her universe collapses on itself. The percussion is unfussy, a reliable constant that keeps the record perfectly intact. Clark uses that framework to do to pop music what she will.
“Prince Johnny”, by the way, is the song that best fits the record’s artwork. It sounds sceptical and assured at the same time, Clark casually throwing out her best melodies before a wavering, ghostly choir that’s used so relentlessly that they become part of the air itself. “Prince Johnny” imagines Clark sitting on that throne, a flicker of a smile emerging on her face, eyes in the back of her head. It’s uneasy and foreboding, but only for Clark’s opposite number. “You’re kind, but do be careful,” she sings, externalising every little thing she knows. “Prince Johnny” is one of those songs in which a songwriter reminds you that they have the power – it’s kind of like hearing the Flaming Lips do “The W.A.N.D.” right, because instead of asserting its place at the top of the hierarchy, it just lands there. That’s a pretty good boast.
Ultimately, though, what amazes me about St. Vincent is that it can flick a switch. Clark eases comedy against tragedy, and trades them ruthlessly, like cards with differently valuable stats. After “Digital Witness”, a song so danceable I almost feel sick with myself describing it as danceable, “I Prefer Your Love” rolls around, a serene, cinematic song worthy of its earnestness. It has shades of Peter Gabriel’s cover of “The Book of Love”, but it’s somehow even more panoramic. Its ambience is part of its beauty, and its beat, which gently locks into place like it’s being placed on an old treasure chest, is another. But “I Prefer Your Love” is beautiful for what Clark says. It’s a typically ambiguous lyric, but married with the least codified thought of the year so far: “I prefer your love to Jesus”. It means nothing in particular, but also everything, and that is what Clark’s music does best. It makes the moment you seek to understand the moment you feel shivering down you. When you listen to “Rattlesnake”, you don’t wonder how Clark’s gonna get out of this one – you hear her scream “ah ah ah!” a dozen times and know she made it out alive. On St. Vincent, she doesn’t just dance with death. She dances on its grave.