While this is the first album for Annie Clark on her own and under her unique nom de rock, she is far from a novice. Having performed with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, and opened for the latter, she is well groomed to ascend into the orchestral indie scene. Naturally comparisons are ripe. She has a knack for grandiose orchestrations but tempers these more restlessly than Sufjan. Her lyricism is more opaque and sinister and also belies a twisted sense of humor. If this is starting to sound boring, remember that categorization is the game of those who have listened to something enough to try to dissect their taste. For those who have not heard St. Vincent, the best approach is listening to her album because it’s so damn good.
The album fades in on the tricky, harmonic riff of “Now, Now”, which is awkwardly bolstered by lumbering drums. Annie and a chorus of Annie’s call and respond until the song finds some kind of comfort as the bass and drums lock into a more standard pattern around the wistful line “I’m not anything”. The song plays with the obtuse and the beautiful in rapid succession and is a good indication of what to expect even if it is overwhelming. Delicate acoustic riffs, sweeping strings, child-like chants, and guitar abuse a la Johnny Greenwood build to an impressive crescendo. All this comes in under five minutes, and all in the first track.
What follows are variations on the ratio of chaos to sweetness, all the while acknowledging that both are necessary. For the world-weary internality of “Jesus Saves, I Spend”, there is the hectic foil of “Your Lips are Red”. Both concern themselves vaguely with busy city life but respond in different ways, reinforced through instrumentation; a bright vocal line tethering the former and violent squealing interrupting the latter. Clark seems at odds with herself as to how her space affects her relationships.
“Marry Me” glides on gossamer vocals, with promises of goodness and sweetness to distract from Annie’s absence. As with “Now, Now” the resolution in sound houses the lyrical twist. What manner of domestic bliss does she so painstakingly create that she will ultimately avoid? Her fickle nature is again acknowledged as seemingly an environmental flaw. And yet she doesn’t care what her object wants, she wants marriage. Is she mocking this desire or merely fleshing out the childish repetition? Then there’s the part about doing “what Mary and Joseph did, without the kid”. If this is blasphemy it is the most quaint and endearing blasphemy. After all without the kid, so often the focus of that story, Mary and Joseph are essentially a very faithful couple. I hesitate to call this blasphemy but others seem to feel that anything but ardent praise for Jesus and his earthly folks is the work of evildoers.
“Paris Is Burning” pretty much bisects the album and is probably its most dramatic moment. It has elements of period drama, and could fit well on Broadway. And yet it was not so long ago that areas of Paris were indeed ablaze. On this front, Clark seems vague about her politics. The phrases of “rejoice revolting” and dancing on the ashes of “fair Paris” are more caricature than commentary. If she is referring to the riots, and its hard to imagine she had no intention to, her romanticism is that glossy veneer afforded by the comfortable left, far removed from the strife. For the record though her album dropped the same summer Paris Hilton served time and appeared on Larry King. Just an observation.
The rest of the album, except “The Apocalypse Song”, has the feel of off-kilter lounge tunes about Clark’s love life. Each features some jazzy verses with the love song’s trademark self centered lack of specificity. This is par for that course and Clark’s vocals and tasteful, if often confounding, arrangements make this all very likeable. “All My Stars Aligned” moves from relaxed sing song into strident drama, and back. “Human Racing” is a reminder of Clark’s prodigious guitar abilities. “Landmines” is interesting as a tune but you can kind of guess the title’s romantic significance. Still it is both moody and atmospheric and makes the abrupt shift to dance-hall, signaled by martial drums and faraway, “radio” vocals. It also features harp and understated but beautiful guitar lines.
The album closes with Clark in full persona as weary chanteuse. She puts on a show of indifference by way of her performance. What is life but “One charming ruse” for the carefree artist? If it sounds disingenuous what is the album? Perhaps we were all fooled. Perhaps some of us like to be. When it sounds like this, I’ll play the fool.