Album Review: St. Vincent

Groove-warped, fifth album by art pop guitarist delivers a confident set of songs.

* * * * (4 / 5)

To refer to St. Vincent, alias Annie Clark, as a guitar goddess is cliche, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind when listening to the Berklee alumna’s latest release. The self-titled album, produced by John Congleton (Chairlift, Angel Olsen) delivers the heavily guitar-driven sound and the angular melodies characteristic of her previous albums. With this release, however, Clark seems to have risen from the ashes of some Bowie-esque metamorphosis (she even dyed her hair white to honor her new “near-future cult leader” persona) with more confidence in her own sound than ever before.

 

“St. Vincent” might feel overwhelming upon first listen — exactly how many different sounds can be extracted from one guitar? (Clark is fundamentally a guitarist, rather than a pop singer, and a skilled one at that.) Experimenting with texture, she alternates between spacey, cascading arpeggios and explosive, distorted riffs. Her arrangements have become more refined and complex than her previous releases, with added layers of haunting synthesizers and funky horns — elements missing from 2009’s “Actor” or 2011’s “Strange Mercy.” She is self-aware without coming across as cocky, and the album is her most extroverted release to date.

 

The lead single, “Birth in Reverse,” is rhythmic and full of energy reminiscent of early Talking Heads — Clark even collaborated with frontman David Byrne on 2012’s “Love This Giant.” Stuttering cymbals propel the song forward, and the distorted, hooky riffs of Clark’s guitar move in tandem with her unwavering, melodic vocals. The second single, “Digital Witness,” is characterized by a strutting horn section which expertly balances Motown grooves with marching band-like tightness. It grabs a hold of the listener and maintains its firm grip for the entirety of the song. Musically, it’s the most colorful song on the album, contradicting the satirical lyrics in which Clark reveals a disillusionment with the Social Media Age: “If I can’t show it / If you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?”

 

“St. Vincent” is a jam-packed album, and it takes time to get into it. What may at first seem like elements of chaos — the distorted guitar riffs, the synth-heavy verses and the abstract lyrics — are beautifully controlled by Clark. She manages to experiment with her sound just enough as to not alienate the listener. With nimble fingers, she pirouettes up and down the frets on her 1967 Harmony Bobkat, exuding self-assurance and passion. She challenges the listener — hopefully we can all keep up with good ol’ Annie.

 

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