Back in 1973, Arlo Guthrie made a record about being The Last Cowboy in Brooklyn. But that statement has, for better or worse, proven false. Plenty of dudes are sitting in the meat district right now plucking on an acoustic and listening to their Willie Nelson records, doing their best take on lonesome in the crowded city. And there’s nothing wrong with bringing the country to the city — in fact, there’s some downright classic music that has resulted from just that action. But country also does just fine on its own — you know, out in the country — so it begs the question of why more artists don’t inject some more city into that country sound.
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark does just that, and does it very well on her new album Actor. Yes, you could call what she does orchestral pop, and that would be okay. But that says more about her former associations with the likes of Sufjan Stevens than about her actual sound. There are plenty of lilting strings and built-up compositions, but St. Vincent doesn’t get enough credit for the deconstruction work her music does. Particularly on Actor, Annie Clark plays in any number of genres, but buries them so deeply in the concrete and rebar of her thundering industrial clatter that they take some coaxing out. And even then they only come out in pieces, coated in the dust of her unique sound.
Take opener “The Strangers”. It starts with deep strings and a chorus of hollow voices before Clark’s voice lilts in on the thump on an insistent beat. As she did on Marry Me, she constructs a choir by layering her own voice in the background, seething out the line “Paint the black hole blacker” over and over again. And then she drowns her voice in echoes on murky breakdowns before the song sparks to life as a fuzzed-out rock song. The sheer inertia of it all is a lot to take in, and it is unsettling because there’s a space underneath — something sparer fighting to be heard. And towards the end of the song we get it. The slight pluck of Clark’s acoustic guitar aligns perfectly with the dreamy sway of her voice. And while acoustic guitar doesn’t equal folk music, it’s hard not to hear the barest elements of this song as a playfully sardonic folk ballad.
The brilliant “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood” lays its folk intentions out right at the front, with a pastoral intro of guitar and strings that is immediately cut by the hushed burn of spare drums and dark comedy of Clark’s lyrics. The treble-light guitar and quick-fire repetition of the backing vocals on “Save Me From What I Want” sounds like a clever, one-woman take on girl-group R&B. And lead single “Actor Out of Work” has all the piss and vinegar of the grimiest garage rock, but it’s sent shimmering by swirling electronics and pristine vocals. “Marrow” works in the opposite way, starting as something more stately and beautiful, and pulling itself apart into chaos-rock squeals.
Clark’s ability to imbed the organic within the mechanized is what makes these songs distinctly hers, but she isn’t content to hide in the noise. She plays some of these songs are straight pop, and proves herself a stunning songwriter. The piano balladry of “The Party” captures the glaze-eyed lull of a night ending beautifully as she picks out perfectly decrepit details, like the compelling holes of a lover’s t-shirt. “The Bed” also puts Clark front and center, the faintest strings and bass notes hardly punctuating the rise and tumble of her voice.
And sometimes, sure, Actor does put more obvious orchestral pop tools to work, particularly on the dramatic rises that ends “Black Rainbow” and “Just the Same But Brand New”. But it works because, even in these moments, Annie Clark is playing with a genre others have put her in by default. But this is not music that soars and floats. The strings swell and keys shine throughout, but they are always jabbed by the dry wit of Clark’s words, rattled by computer buzzing, and beaten down by the impressive pounding of drums throughout the record. And as the violins lilt away, there are deeper strings there to give “Black Rainbow” an edge, or “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood” a sinister gallop.
So, in the end, Clark is acting on this record. Maybe not as a cowboy in Brooklyn. But surely she’s acting as a folk singer, a soul diva, a deathly funny troubadour, a heartbreaking pop balladeer, or a rocking indie chick. In short, she’s acting like St. Vincent. And what’s surprising is just how nuanced that performance is, because Actor marks no huge departures her work on Marry Me, but it still manages to constantly surprise, always meshing the earthen with the industrial in strange and compelling ways. That’s probably because Annie Clark isn’t settling into her sound with her sophomore album. Apparently, she’s just getting started with it.