“Here’s my report from the edge” grits Annie Clark through blood red lips and perfect teeth, but as precarious as her announcement sounds, it’s an odd way to characterize the bucolic neighborhood she speaks of on the throbbing, clangorous “Birth in Reverse” — a place where the only thing more routine than taking out the trash and ignoring the dog barking next door is (naturally) masturbation. Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) has been down this twisted avenue before. “Cruel” from 2011’s excellent Strange Mercy found her writing from the perspective of a wife who had descended into the bottomless pit of suburban domesticity. “They could take you or leave you/ So they took you and they left you” the sprightly Clark concluded, even as the last shovelful of dirt was cast down upon her — by husband and child no less.
“Birth in Reverse” is “Cruel’s” direct musical and thematic descendant — a new wave meets punk-drenched-in-electro banger that giddily pokes holes in the suffocating pall of ordinary, everyday living that threatens to envelop Clark, who is by most accounts, far from ordinary. She’s an accomplished singer, songwritter, and multi-instrumentalist with a face as strikingly attractive as those pearly whites. St. Vincent’s eponymous fourth album marks a noticeable progression in her electronic-aided, guitar-driven compositions — the taut rhythms now ooze with loose, cocksure swagger, the melodies prove even more indelible, and the quality of song craft never wanes from start to finish.
In search of her happy place, St. Vincent has found a devastating sweet spot — expertly splitting the difference between punk rock’s defiance and pop’s accessibility, between manic depression and eerie-calm proficiency. The edge that Clark refers to is still there in her mind and music, but she takes us deeper into those spaces than ever before. St. Vincent is that rare close-up of an exceptionally gifted artist who is reaching the peak of her powers even as she challenges the boundaries of her craft.
Clark’s fearsome abilities as a songwriter practically leap off the record. “Huey Newton” is driven by a slippery snare beat as Clark’s coy tenor conjures images of impressionistic dread — feelings transcribed on flashcards, knives, and ketchup blood. Unexpectedly, the song steers down a different corridor, giving way to celestial, prog-rock organs before detonating into a gargantuan fuzz riff that belies Clark menacing, axe-wielding prowess and her slew of inspirations — from Black Sabbath to Bowie to Billy Corgan. “Entombed in a shrine/ Of zeroes and ones” she bellows as an unholy choir rises up to surround her — it’s one of many wow moments on St Vincent that channel Clark’s full arsenal of talent, her disillusionment communicated as much by the sonic maelstrom as the lyrics.
St. Vincent still bears the cracked mannequin smile that made its way into Strange Mercy’s jittery confines, but it’s bolstered by a sinewy, rhythmic undertow. “Regret” is Clark’s heaviest, riff-driven track since “Actor Out of Work” (think Green Day’s Godzilla-like “Brain Stew” with a woman’s supple touch). Propelled by Stax horns and P-funk beats, “Digital Witness” is lively, frantic, and fiendishly addictive — much like the technological dystopia it promises. Clark observes: “People turn the TV on/ It looks just like a window,” but the question remains a window to what — the outside world or hell? Thoreau once presciently chastised our insatiable need for the latest word: “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap…but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks “What’s the news?” On “Digital Witness,” Clark takes that propensity to its logical, terrifying extreme — she simply stops sleeping. Essential human needs give way to human wants. The inescapable clutter of life presses in upon us.
St. Vincent carries on the bloodline of several esteemed musical lineages — Anglophiles who render dance rhythms with such uncanny precision that they become simultaneously cerebral and physical (Talking Heads), female singers who bear enormous pop talents but remain defiantly indie (Kate Bush), and rock prodigies who embrace technology even while expressing their disdain for it (Radiohead). “Call the 21st century/ Tell her ‘Give us a break'” she demands on “Every Tear Disappears,” codifying a generational malaise. There’s a sensation of ice and heat on St. Vincent — Clark captures cold, computerized unease even while making your palms sweat. On “Rattlesnake,” the synth detritus entwines with Clark’s sinewy guitar riff until the two are a double-backed beast surging toward the same climax. Madonna-style ballad “I Prefer Your Love” is an earnest avowal of commitment that makes Clark’s exploration of polymory’s animalistic benefits on “Bring Me Your Loves” bite that much harder — Clark might prefer your love to Jesus, but just like predecessor Liz Phair, she’ll fuck you and your minions, too.
Musicians often arrive at their grandest statements by cobbling together small scraps of writing — a chord progression, a few phrases here and there, a particular cadence and phrasing. Those pieces become songs, which are collected and sequenced to express mood and themes. With St. Vincent, you get the sense that Clark knew what she wanted and how to assemble the components from the very beginning — her songs pulse with the terse, authoritative glow of their creator and a sense that this is exactly what I wanted you to hear. St. Vincent is an exercise in feral restraint — an Exacto knife of discontent, artistic certainty, and terrific hooks that cuts through 40 minutes of your life like hot butter. It is one thing to appreciate the work of a musician whose arrival comes as a surprise and provides unforeseen delight. It is quite another thing to witness an artist upon whom tremendous expectations are thrust and who rises to the occasion to create a career-defining album. The St. Vincent album cover shows a white-haired Clark on a vaulted pink pedestal — imperialistic yet approachable, desirous yet unattainable, a thinly curved totem of fortitude. A crown is neither visible nor necessary — it’s understood.