Difficult music has become considerably more palatable of late. Case in point: the new St. Vincent album goes down easy. While YouTube is still abuzz with WTF-esque comments accompanying the self-titled album’s first single, “Digital Witness”, many of the album’s songs could easily find a home in the title credits of a current teen-type television program. This, Annie Clark’s fourth album under the St. Vincent moniker, is likely to win the quirky and capable songstress more mainstream acclaim than ever before. Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne on 2012’s Love This Giant is writ large on her self-titled album, with the result being charmingly captivating and shockingly funky.
When Clark struck out on her own in 2007 with Marry Me, she took many by surprise with her stark vocals and slinky guitar riffs, and her unique appeal was recognized by the indie music world as a treasure to be nurtured. Clark continues to push against the boundaries of traditional female singer-songwriter expectations, and, in doing so, has cut a path that many others are choosing to try to make their own. Clark still does it best (or better than most), and it is clear to fans that Clark’s forte lies in her ability to boldly step off the path as it becomes too well-traveled.
Album highlights include “Rattlesnake” and “Regret”, with the former providing the album with a herky-jerky start and the latter finding a smoother groove to let Clark’s voice shine, as it ought to do. Clark’s distorted guitar riffs factor prominently in the stronger songs, although she often saves them until half-way through the song or later. “Digital Witness” is horn-laden, brazen and viscerally exciting. If this is what “difficult” sounds like, it’s well worth the effort.
Unfortunately, all that glitters is not always a solid gold hit, and St. Vincent’s forays into ballads ring oddly false here. “I Prefer Your Love” is too slow and straight-forward, considering part of what makes Clark’s songs so intriguing is their abrupt changes in tempo and direction. Lyrically, Clark is hit and miss. Some listeners will enjoy the quirkiness of the first lines of “Birth In Reverse” (“Oh what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate”), while others may find it a cheap shock tactic that serves little purpose in propelling an otherwise solid song onward. Album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” is also a bit of a dud, a washed-out love song that peters out, in extreme contrast to the power and promise with which the album began.
Certainly, this album has its moments, moments of extremely accessible pop greatness that shine through (and hopefully eclipse) the murk of a few misplaced ballads. St. Vincent fans will not be disappointed, as Clark continues to push boundaries and create her own musical reality, and it is highly likely that the stronger songs will find new fans, including those with less adventurous musical tastes. It doesn’t seem fair to fault an indie darling for making it, just so long as we keep seeing the flashes of genius St. Vincent continues to offer.