Alone in the Texan desert, Annie Clark takes off her clothes and feels at one with her surroundings. She asks, “Am I the only one?”; the answer given back by this fourth St. Vincent LP is a resounding no. And much as isolation is not necessarily synonymous with loneliness, reaching out to others, both on the internet and in real life, in modern times is filled with risk and even absurdity to Clark’s mind. Out of touch with her surroundings, she stops sleeping and eventually jumps off London Bridge.
So, Hell is other people, but it’s a desire to connect above all else that consumes Clark on St. Vincent. Though whether it’s sanitised online avatars, the selfishness of self-absorbed lovers or her own trepidation, there are plenty of obstacles for her to overcome. Fulfillment evades Clark at all corners and that void is felt at the heart of this largely brilliant record. Lyrically forthright and musically unafraid, this is a pop album that sounds carefree but carries weight and reticence in its bones. ‘Digital Witness’ may laugh off social media’s attempts at chronicling life lived with a perma-smile, much as ‘Birth in Reverse’ approaches mortality with a wink and a masturbation joke to hand, but St. Vincent has teeth, and they’re very sharp.
‘Prince Johnny’ is a journey into heartbreak unto intself. Slowing the pace quite noticeably and furnished merely with a ghostly choir and a heavy ersatz beat, Clark’s voice on this ode to Peter Pan-as-manwhore reaches uplifting, angelic heights despite the song’s yearning disappointment. “I wanna mean more than I mean to you” is an all-too-common sentiment, communicated in this case with singular honesty as Clark watches on as Johnny eschews their seeming intimacy in favour of the public adulation he garners as the centre of attention.
If nothing else, these missed connections and minor-key disappoints ensure that St. Vincent is entirely relatable. Publicity materials may see Clark in a cape and sporting a Spectoresque fro in bleach blonde, but the superficial changes hide something deeper. St. Vincent deals in the universality of disappointment and fear of loneliness at a time when the world seems noisier and more connected than ever.
‘Huey Newtom’ best contemplates that latter point while raging about the disconnect between worth and value in the digital age. With an alien synthline and Clark affecting a mindless drawl, its anger, at least initially, sounds foggy and displaced (such is the effect of baseless web-surfing), but by the time she spits out the words “Entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones” the song has morphed into a roaring gospel-rock number with a distinctive, fuzzy guitar riff at its thrilling fore.
It’s true that the final four tracks see St. Vincent tail off a bit. Some are throwaway (‘Bring Me Your Loves’), others a bit derivative (‘Psychopath’ sounds like a less bratty YYYs), but their greatest crime is being forgettable in the company of far superior and engaging numbers. They pale in comparison to the songs mentioned above and suffer for their sequencing, coming after the album’s mid-section, which includes the draining, peerless ‘I Prefer Your Love’.
A ballad concerning Clark’s ailing mother, it is probably the most personal song St. Vincent has to offer and yet its the most transcendent. Part of that has to do with framing – a slow spectre of a mournful synth, a respectful, marching beat. It’s musically spare, allowing emotion to retain focus, and all that worry, fatigue and nostalgia for youth reaches the ear uninhibited and fully preserved.
St. Vincent should not be remembered as the album on which Annie Clark threw everything out and embraced electronic music. For one thing, that’s simply not true. It is a more a natural progression, a subtle reinvention, but this is the album when she decided to stop making sense of a world that refuses to, and she’s made all that frustration, confusion and sadness so entirely palpable that one can take solace in these songs and forget about the world at large.