Instead of offering a reaffirmation of an album that topped metacritic’s midway list and had high placements on everyone’s year-end lists, I offer a polite demurral: this album isn’t as great as everyone made it out to be, and it certainly didn’t need to be reissued with only five new songs a year after the fact (while other, older albums toil in anonymity that you can’t even find download links for — let’s start reissuing those, shall we?). Of the five deluxe edition songs, St. Vincent offers the awkward rave-up “Bad Believer”, the throwaway “Del Rio”, and a Darkside remix of “Digital Witness” that manipulates the human voices — the only human component of the song — into robotic ones, and it ends up being neither melodic nor subtle about its message. “Pieta”, released as a single on 2014’s Record Store Day, is the antithesis of what I said previously about the album’s rhythms, and could have easily slotted in over “Bring Me Your Loves”, while its b-side, “Sparrow”, is an interesting experiment built out of sludgy guitars.
As for the proper album, there are certainly great songs to be found here: lead single “Birth in Reverse” is a song that’s simultaneously twitchy and muscular, and I look forward every time to hear the way she gasps the last instance of the title’s words, lending more power when she sings “AmeriKAHHHHHH!” afterwards, kicking off the ground and launching into the atmosphere, lingering there for a moment before turning her guitar into a chainsaw. And whereas “Rattlesnake” and “Birth in Reverse” look outward, “Prince Johnny” turns inward, both lyrically and sonically, with some of her most poignant lyrics ever sung and understood clearly over a choir of washed out backing vocals, a trip-hop beat and light guitar that materializes in the choruses. The title is a reference to Prince John, who was epileptic and possibly autistic, making the chorused “Saw you pray to all / To make you a real boy” much more touching, as if it weren’t already. It can be about anyone who isn’t comfortable with themselves… so basically everyone.
Elsewhere, St. Vincent satires my generation’s #selfieculture with the inspired “Digital Witness”, sassy robotic responses of “Yeah?!” and a synthesized brass riff that sounds like the march of twisted robots. “What’s the point of even sleeping / So I stopped sleeping, yeah I stopped sleeping / Won’t somebody sell me back to me?” is still a great couple of lines. Those are the album’s greatest highlights, and not only were all three of them released as singles, but they are all spent by the album’s first half.
For all the talk of St. Vincent’s supposed growth, I don’t hear it outside of “Digital Witness”, the only song on the album where she really steps outside of her comfort zone and tries something different. Elsewhere, I hear the same song structures — out-of-nowhere guitar codas after held vocal notes (compare the climax of “Northern Lights” with “Birth in Reverse”) and the same oscillated vocals for hooks (compare “Cruel” with “Prince Johnny”) and some of the same rhythm problems she’s consistently faced throughout her career but seems to have no intention of fixing soon. Ie, “Psychopath”. You’d think collaborating with and taking inspiration from the frontman of the greatest rhythm-driven bands the world has ever known would have changed that.
Dying her hair white — though she still looks gorgeous — is sadly analogous to the record as a whole. She sounds quirky for the sake of being quirky. The opening line of first single “Birth in Reverse” is “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate” and oh, the shock value! An easy line for critics to write about, because they love women who talk about sex, it’s so different than what they’re used to! Her live show now features choreography that detracts from the overall experience instead of adding to it, as say, Stop Making Sense did (watch what her second guitarist and keyboardist are doing in any live performance of “Birth in Reverse”). Speaking of, she yelps a lot more here than ever, sounding like someone who wants to be David Byrne instead of being herself (which worked out for her in the past). It’s ironic because she made a big deal about trying to sound like herself after she made this album eponymous.
I mean, what else is there to talk about here? “Rattlesnake” has a nice chorus, sure. “Huey Newton” has those lovely climbs (“Pleasure dot loathing dot Huey dot Newton”; “Hale-Bopp, hail Mary, hail Hagia Sophia / Oh, it was a lonely, lonely winter”) but her newfound major record sound prevents the climax from catching fire, even though it tries (and it really does — this wouldn’t have been a problem on Strange Mercy). “I Prefer Your Love” has a nice line and you know which one it is. Closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” has a melody, and that helps distinguish it from the preceding three-block track, which includes “Bring Me Your Loves”, which is her most grating song to date, the aforementioned “Psychopath”, and what sounds like a re-write of “Birth in Reverse” sans guitar in “Every Tear Disappears”.