It starts with the creation myth: St. Vincent, naked and alone in the wilderness, startled as the ominous rattle of a snake breaks the silence of her Eden. She realizes she’s not alone in the world and breaks into a run, headed towards the uncertainty of the future. It’s a lovely and appropriate metaphor to open St. Vincent’s self-titled fourth album, except that it literally happened.
“It’s not a metaphor at all,” St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, says of the album’s lead track, “Rattlesnake.” While visiting a friend’s west Texas ranch, she decided to strip away her clothes and fully enjoy the solitude that city life so rarely affords. “I went walking around this great expanse of land. There was no one around so I decided to take my clothes off and immerse myself in nature. I saw holes in the path, but did not put two-and-two together until I heard the rattle and caught a glimpse of the snake.”
Clark’s been moving at a breakneck speed for the past two years, barely stopping to catch her breath amidst a whirlwind of recording and touring. In 2011 she released her third album, ‘Strange Mercy,’ called “one of the year’s best” by the New York Times and “something to behold” by Pitchfork. The record cemented her status as one of her generation’s most fearsome and inventive guitarists, earned her the covers of SPIN, Paper, and Under the Radar, performances everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fallon to Letterman and Conan, and a year-long sold-out tour of her biggest venues to date around the world. She appeared on the hit IFC series Portlandia and graced the pages of Vogue’s coveted September issue. It was during this already monumentally busy time that she completed work with David Byrne on their collaborative album ‘Love This Giant,’ another critical smash that was dubbed “marvelous” by the New Yorker and “magical” by NPR.
“I finished the ‘Strange Mercy’ tour in Japan and went directly into ‘Love This Giant’ rehearsals and the subsequent North American tour,” says Clark.
At the end of it all, Clark made it clear to everyone in her life, in no uncertain terms, that she needed two weeks to decompress and readjust to life off the road. Time without interruption, without thoughts of albums or tours or festivals or studios. “36 hours later I sent everyone an email saying, ‘I’m ready to go again,'” Clark laughs. “I began writing music.”
Those songs turned into her most lyrically sophisticated and musically diverse collection to date, meshing distorted, aggressive electric guitars and bold vocal and synthesizer arrangements on top of a relentless rhythm section.
“I wanted the groove to be paramount,” Clark says of the album, which she arranged and demoed extensively in Austin before heading into the studio in Dallas to record. She enlisted Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss and frequent collaborator McKenzie Smith of Midlake to share drum duties, while she returned to producer John Congleton to take the sonic potential they’d only just begun to tap with ‘Strange Mercy’ into dramatic new territory. “I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral.”
The result is Clark’s most gripping work to date. “Bring Me Your Loves” is a frenzied freakout, but even less frantic tracks like “Severed Crossed Fingers” still deliver her trademark blend of the beautiful and surreal. At the heart of all her music, though, lie larger questions about what it means to be human and the ways in which we seek to create meaning in our lives.
“Regret” catches her at a moment of immense vulnerability, while “I Prefer Your Love” may be the purest expression of affection she’s ever written. “Digital Witness” tackles identity in the era of Instagram, with Clark singing, “If I can’t show it / If you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?”
“We are inundated with technology that makes us perpetual spectators,” says Clark. “It’s not enough to just experience life, we have to document it and show it to other people in order to validate our existence.” Clark is quick to admit that she, too, at times falls victim to the impulse, which is part of what fascinates her so much with the idea. “Lyrically, I’m always so interested in how complicated people are and the notion of true ambivalence,” she says. “Literally, ambi-valence. Two ways at the same time.”
Such is the music on ‘St. Vincent’: charming and alarming, gorgeous and morbid, comforting and uncanny. Four albums into one of music’s most compelling careers, Annie Clark is as “ambi-valent” as ever, and she’s not slowing down any time soon.