On her fourth solo album, St. Vincent – otherwise known as Annie Clark – has created a lusher, more fully realized take on the pristine pop of her last album, 2011’s Strange Mercy. This is where heart-swelling melodies meet cool, unflinching beats. Using two live drummers — Homer Steinweiss of the Dap-Kings and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith — the beats here are more organic than much of those on her previous albums, but just as complex with the swift-footed percussion and other drumming giving her songs just as much intensity as the electro-centric beats on her previous albums. It’s a more than fascinating listen as her enchanting vocals ride above these driving beats throughout the album’s bouncier tracks, like “Huey Newton,” a poetic and melancholic tune about a lonely winter that’s named after an assassinated member of the Black Panthers, and the album’s propulsive opening track, “Rattlesnake,” during which where she walks around naked and finds herself chased by, you guessed, a rattlesnake. (Although the rattlesnake is probably something metaphorical. Your guess is as good as mine insofar as just what the metaphor represents. The corruption of her innocence, perhaps?)
Fans of St. Vincent’s electro side still have plenty of reason to rejoice. Many of the songs on this album retain the sometimes glitchy and grooving bleeps and general atmospherics – read synths – heard on her previous records. At times even her guitar work, which is often heavily processed and/or distorted, has a very electro-minded feel as well.
In addition to the above-mentioned tracks, each of the other songs on the album are essential and you’d be wise to listen to the whole album from start to finish, as opposed to cherry-picking the singles. But the following are some of my favorites…
“Remember the time we went and snorted the piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted / And we had such a laugh of it / Fell straight on my carpet,” she sings during “Prince Johnny,” the third of the three tracks unleashed before the release of the album. Here, the live drums seem paired with electronic beats, creating a rather buoyant, almost trip-hop sound. (If you heard an instrumental version of this one, you might think it’s an out-take from Tricky’s Maxinquaye.) The humming synthesizers are also noteworthy, helping to put forth the right mood for the tale she’s telling here, which is at least partially about a boy who prays “to all” to make him “a real boy.”
The first track from the album that we were treated to was “Digital Witness,” where she uses boisterous horns to set the mood, something she likely learned to do while making the album Love This Giant, which featured horns prominently, with ex-Talking Heads singer David Byrne, with whom she toured extensively. In fact, she was going to take some time off after they’d finally finished touring but she reportedly had a good night’s sleep and then got up two days later and started writing this record. During the chorus she wonders “what’s the point of doing anything?” Elsewhere, she commands, “I want all of your mind / Give me all of your mind,” which is probably ironic because she also proclaims, “this is no time for confessing.”
“I prefer your love to Jesus,” she sings during the intoxicating ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” which paints a wonderful picture of l’amour with its colorful, inviting synth and her especially sweet vocals. I dare say it’s the most beautiful song she’s ever done, radiating warmth like an aural fireplace.
Another highlight is “Regret,” which is like flickering electro disco with its danceable beats. Meanwhile, her guitar riffs inject soothing grooves you might not expect from a song called “Regret.”
Relationships are further explored during “Bring Me Your Loves.” “Bring me your loves, all your loves / I want to know them, too, you know,” she sings instructively. Whether she’s talking about things her fellow is passionate about – like his favorite records and books – or whether she’s referring to his mistresses is open to interpretation. “I thought you were like a dog,” she sings. “I took you off your leash, but I can’t, no I can’t, make you heel.”
Even the album’s closing track, “Severed Crossed Fingers,” is better than just about any artsy pop song you’re going to hear this year. “I’ll be side stage, mouthing lines for you / Humiliated by aged terrified years / I got hope but my hope isn’t helping you.” It would seem to be about being in a relationship where you cross your fingers and wish for the other person to be a better companion. “Well, you stole the heart right out my chest / Changed the words that I know best,” she sings with regret in her voice. In lieu of a guitar solo, she sings “enough” over and over again, first softly but her voice gradually grows louder and more intense. Suffice to say she’s done with the guy already. As soon as the song ends, you’ll want to start listening to the album again, I assure you.