Review: St. Vincent – Actor
The first time St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, pierced my conscience was as a member of Sufjan Steven’s (singer-songwriter, and possibly the best purveyor of puns in indie music today) energetic live band, The Illinoise-makers, and as a member of The Polyphonic Spree. So as I pressed ‘play’ on St. Vincent’s latest offering, I thought I knew what to expect – delicate, orchestral folk music. Words like “Joanna Newsom” and “Vashti Bunyan” ran through my mind as I prepared myself for a dosage of dreamy folk.
What came flooding through the speakers was something quite different – what sounded like a twisted fairy-tale choir, broken by skittering, twinkling music-box beats. It’s all incredibly odd and incredibly pretty, but slotted in between the prettiness is a tangible sense of unease – Clark’s apocalyptic refrain of ‘Paint the black hole, blacker’ and ominous electronics threaten to break the idyll , until 2:30 – where the fairytale whirring are sliced by buzzing electric guitar – like a chainsaw cutting down the Disneyland forest. It’s remarkably compelling – the combination of the ethereally pretty and the disgusting pervades through the whole of ‘Actor’, tainting the peaceful intervals with apprehension – as the listener knows it isn’t long until the peace is broken. It almost feels as though the pretty element of this record works the same way as animals luring prey – Clark’s doe-eyed loveliness lulling the listener into a false sense of security before sinking her claws in.
Clark’s voice is remarkable – a high, perfectly pitched warble, it flutters above the musical fluctuations below her, creating a sense of detachment from the situation – like the music that swells around the apparently unaware characters in a musical.
St. Vincent is ceaselessly experimental – she could make completely pretty, feminine folk music and gain the success of other female singer-songwriters (and with her indie credentials and undeniable talent she would be incredibly successful) , but in ‘Actor’ she refuses to relax into stereotypes – like her album’s namesake she is constantly aware, constantly trying to push musical boundaries. The most experimental moment comes in the dynamic ‘Marrow’, which starts with St. Vincent listlessly cooing gory body imagery (“Muscle connects to the bones/ and bone to the ire and to the marrow”). Then, like in ‘The Strangers’ all hell breaks loose – jagged, discordant electronics kick in, and Clark loses her composure and yelps “H-E-LP/ Help me” over the furor. It’s not an easy listen, but probably the most inventive musical moment of this year. But even this rare moment of directness has a sense of detachment – Clark’s yells seem far-away and unfocused, like a gauzy, acidic dream sequence.
Clark’s lyrical inventiveness also has to be applauded – her lyrics are just as jarring as her music; on ‘The Strangers’ she smirks tweely about throwing flowers in your face and finding playboys under the mattress, but a track later she warns “Honey, what reveals you is what you try and hide away” while darkly intoning “watch your step, watch your step”. Thematically at least, Actor’s nearest neighbour is Icelandic electronic band múm’s 2004 release ‘Summer Make Good’, which employs the same, conflicting juxtaposition of the sweet and the unsettling – but with nowhere near the same groundbreaking lucidity as ‘Actor’. Overall, Actor is a sophisticated, developed sophomore release that will disgust just as much as it delights. St. Vincent is an artist that, I feel, continually shape-shift, and I’m looking forward to her next release, where I’m sure the tried-and-tested formula in Actor will be tossed out the window, and Annie Clark will morph into something new, but hopefully something equally as fantastic.