A Gentle Mind And An Iron Spine: St. Vincent's 'Actor' Turns 10
Annie Clark is one of those people so talented it seems besides the point to mention it. But why shouldn’t we? She's so demure; let’s embarrass her. Not one of her five albums as St. Vincent (nor her undervalued David Byrne collaboration) ever sounds less than in complete control of its vision. Not one ever comes off like her uncanny, 12-dimensional chops need a lift from a sideperson. Not one struggles to get to where it appears to be going, which is all we have to go on, really. Clark is definitely the only person with the map to her art.
Those looking to retrace her steps could start with 2007's Marry Me, a more than respectable debut that leads with maybe her prettiest song, the guitar-harmonic hall of mirrors "Now, Now." And certainly anyone looking to dive in should know 2017's GRAMMY-winning MASSEDUCTION, which was as shiny and kinky as a pair of vinyl boots, the closest thing she could conjure to a pop record, and endearingly twisted for such a prospect. But her second album, Actor, which just turned 10, is probably where to acquaint yourself with one of the most prominent architects of both alt-rock and art-rock alike in the past decade.
Clark gets compared to Björk plenty in her, shall we say... iconoclasticity. But it took even Björk a bit longer to arrive at her true home planet. On Clark’s second album, her occasionally orchestral weirdo-pop was as fully formed as it would be on 2011's slower Strange Mercy and 2014's hard-rocking St. Vincent, all works of an artist constantly progressing but never clearly towards what. A lavishly arranged symphonic like 2009's "The Party" normally takes alt-rockers much longer to work up the sophistication for. But Clark navigates it without breaking a sweat, which is in jarring contrast to two lyrical themes constant throughout her career: the twin phantoms of helplessness and, if you can believe it, impostor syndrome.
Actor's "Save Me From What I Want" didn’t appear much more resolved eight years later when Clark sang "I can turn off what turns me on" from MASSEDUCTION's title track. She makes no secret that she's in thrall to the pull of her desires, whatever they are, even if she’s grown more explicit and confident over time. The expensive sound-world she erected on Actor was still the work of someone inhabiting characters like the "wife in watercolors," bemused by the "ladies of the lawn" whose "children act like furniture" on "Black Rainbow." She always skews diagonal, leaving the listener to dictate that, as on 2011’s more pronounced "Cheerleader," Clark disdains (or simply can't conform to) archaic portraits of contented "normal" life.
So "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood" finds her "holed up at the Hotel Ritz with a televangelist," missing her brother and sister, wondering if the life of an art-rocker has too many halves to ever become whole. She fantasizes plenty, but it's only clear in retrospect that she may not have been always able to make MASSEDUCTION without the temerity of Actor and Strange Mercy first. Even St. Vincent's famous line from the sawtoothed single "Birth in Reverse" about taking out the garbage and masturbating now feels like she was making a declaration to herself, that if she can be such an audacious artist, she owes herself the same freedom as a person, too.
On Actor, we could hear that dichotomy loud and clear, when the aural tarantula fuzz of a song like "Marrow" can command a roomful of demented indie-rockers dancing while Clark literally spells out, "H-E-L-P / Help me." On the same song, she opined, "I wish I had a gentle mind and a spine made up of iron," which we can hope some Glenda the Good Witch has convinced the current Sleater-Kinney producer she had all along.
Actor's best song is just 135 seconds long, and "Actor Out of Work" is where she finally turns her emotions outward on a paramour who several times earns the compound observation "I think I love you, I think I’m mad." She could be talking to herself, sure. But more important, Clark and longtime producer John Congleton process the jagged synth lines until they bulge and distort like veins in a forehead. But what they signify is concentration, all this violence and loving and left-field vocal harmonies being made sense of, decrypting the code of Clark’s own feelings to download them to her guitar.
If we only traced the line of St. Vincent’s albums from art-rock to art-rock, we do know more about the auteur than we did 10 years ago, and she does too. Actor ended with "The Sequel," which foreshadowed the sexual rapture of MASSEDUCTION to come: "Bodies like wrecking balls f**k / F**k with dynamite." So we can celebrate the patient pizzicatos of "The Strangers" leading to the volcanoes of violin that finish off "Black Rainbow" for not just the dynamic fireworks of the impeccable arrangements but the tension that we know has resolved to some degree. Clark's music has become more successful and thus more shared; more people than ever are happy for her to steer them to the next destination. And if Actor and its four sibling albums are any indication, it’s going to be both weird and okay.