It starts with a moment of heavenly choir, which collapses into woodwind, a repetitive beat and layers of Annie Clark’s vocals, painting a black hole, warning a lover from a distance, until fat shards of buzzsawing electric guitar flit around the edges as the woodwind swirls, and then erupt into lashing, unholy noise. It’s thrilling and discordant and beautiful all at the same time. This is St. Vincent.
I’d managed to miss St. Vincent’s debut album, Marry Me, in 2007, amidst the tumult of great music that came out that year. So when I noticed Actor riding high at Metacritic, attracting plaudits left, right, and centre, I had little idea who she was. Being a man, and an idiot, I was hesitant about an unknown female singer-songwriter, especially as the reviews, though glowing, seemed unable to clue me in on exactly what was so good about her and this record. But come the summer I was too curious to hold out anymore, and I bought Actor completely unheard, with the thought that perhaps Emma would enjoy it. By winter, after dozens and dozens of plays by mutual consent, it had seeped its way into our brains and bodies so much that we both loved it unashamedly. For what it’s worth, I’d have anointed it as my favourite record of 2009, had I anointed any record with that dubious title.
Throughout the record Annie’s melodies are sweetly subtle and addictive, her arrangements forward thinking, intricate, and just a little bit threatening. Her songs are compelling and accessible, but ever so slightly, and brilliantly, warped. Lyrics are clearly intelligent and precise but often oblique; she writes about love and lust in faintly disconcerting ways, metaphors just a little too concerned with damage and dirt and loss and the thrill of delicious pain (“I’m a wife in watercolours / I can wash away / What seventeen cold showers / Couldn’t wash away”). “Marrow” runs through the geography of the body, squalls of digitised brass and almost unrecognisable guitar noise obliterating the topography, pulling apart yet another celestial chorale.
Had the sonic richness and oddness of Actor been conveyed better in those early reviews, I’d have bought it straight away; insistent, pulsing rhythms, slashing guitars, and lilting “ooohs” drive “Actor Out Of Work” and preface yet more buzzsawing guitar, the tension ramping up and up before it can’t be contained anymore, and it explodes briefly in filthy, compressed torrents. “Just The Same But Brand New” is swooning and dreamy, before huge pillars of percussion parade through the song’s final movement. But it’s not all jarring juxtapositions of sweetness and savagery; “The Bed” and “The Party” are delicate throughout, content to be beautiful without needing to be disruptive.
We saw St. Vincent live a couple of years later, in support of Actor’s follow-up, the jazzy, shifting, sophisticated Strange Mercy. In the flesh Annie Clark is striking, with enormous, luminescent eyes and pearl skin and jet black hair, but her guitar playing is far more notable than her appearance; her fingers barely seem to touch the strings yet summon forth torrents of notes and feedback and wired, wailing riffs and solos. I don’t know much about guitarists but to my ears she sounds like Robert Fripp, extravagant and exciting, virtuosic but not arrogantly so. Part Prince, part Black Flag, part Bowie, avoiding pigeonholes with consummate ease, Annie Clark is obviously, brilliantly talented, and her music is intriguing and compelling in equal measure.