As part of my research for a contemporary review, I’ll occasionally check out what other reviewers have written and skim through any interviews the artist has done to promote the work. I view both with great skepticism. Today’s music critics are predictably boring, arrogant and full of themselves: the reviews are often more about the reviewer than the artist. As far as artist interviews are concerned, I’m always aware that the relationship between artist and journalist is often problematic. Some artists think journalists are really thick, so they just make up shit to drive the journalist crazy. Others try to manipulate and charm them; some will make outrageous statements that they know will turn into publicity, based on the common wisdom that there is no such thing as bad publicity. When an artist talks about their intentions behind the work, I never know if I’m hearing spin or the truth, and in many ways, it hardly matters. What every artist has to understand is that they can’t control the meaning of a work once it becomes publicly available: people will attach their own meanings to it that may have no relation to the artist’s intention. This is how a song about urban squalor like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” became the soldiers’ anthem in the Vietnam War; it’s how a song about the shameful treatment of returning Vietnam veterans (“Born in the USA”) became a Reagan campaign song; it’s how people listening to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” ignore the attack on the sacred concept of private property and raise their voices in praise of America.
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) did her rounds like all the rest, leaving behind a trail of snippets relating to influences, themes, intentions and meanings. One comment stood out above the rest: that she’d recently read Miles Davis’ autobiography and was struck by his comment that how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like yourself. If you’ve ever read Miles’ autobiography, that is not a facile, superficial statement. The book is the story of one long bullshit-stripping experience, and the bullshit being stripped is Miles’ own. He not only had to get beyond all the expectations heaped on any talented artist, but he had to get past his own crap to discover his essence. Miles doesn’t just tell you that’s what he did, he recounts the story in graphic, painful, embarrassing detail—not as a catharsis but to show anyone with artistic ambitions how very difficult it is to strip the layers of façade and face the ugliness, fear, loneliness and uncertainty in the soul that interferes with the self-actualization essential to artistic achievement.
The role of the artist in society is one that has always fascinated me. When I lived in The City, I was exposed to all kinds of New Age philosophies, and while I have always been a spiritual skeptic, there’s usually a nugget or two in spiritual teachings that I find useful. One in particular spoke of the soul of the artist and that the lifelong task of the artist was to differentiate between world truths (what Everyone believes) and personal truths. Even more interesting was the assertion that the life path best suited to the development of the artist is rejection: deliberately placing oneself in situations of contrast to sharpen the difference between self and Everyone.
Both Miles Davis and St. Vincent have aspects of their lives that clearly indicate the choice of the rejection path. Both went to prestigious musical schools and dropped out. Both were blessed with the talent to be major mainstream stars but chose to follow their inner voices. I was hardly surprised to hear St. Vincent quoting Miles Davis: I’ve been listening to her music for years because I had the sense that she was on the path of rejection, of differentiating herself from Everyone.
I love people who do that.
The other thing I noticed in my research had to do with the reviews. All were positive, but they seemed almost apologetic that they were being positive. Some stopped to note that they considered Annie “eccentric” in a tone that seemed to imply, “But I’m not—I’m normal!” They talked about the usual crap that reviewers talk about—David Byrne, electronics, Annie’s roots, the “artiness” of it all—but rarely talked about how the music moved them or what it meant to them. In the end it seemed like they were doing their duty to avoid offending the art crowd by writing an obsequious review of one of the art crowd’s favorites but they really had no fucking idea what to make of St. Vincent.
Since men dominate the field of music criticism, I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of emotional-intuitive intelligence, but it still pisses me off. Harrumph!
So, let me be clear. I think it is going to be very difficult for any other artist to produce a record this year that comes close to the quality of St. Vincent. A great artist makes you think and feel while you’re enjoying the hell out of the music, and that’s exactly what St. Vincent did to me. She has one of the most beautiful and expressive voices on the scene today, yet avoids engaging in attention-grabbing histrionics. Many people may be put off by the preponderance of electronica, and I understand that skepticism, given all the people today who play with software and various effects without much knowledge or intentionality. I would encourage listeners to push past that resistance for two reasons: one, St. Vincent knows what she’s doing and uses sound to create magnificently rich and evocative soundscapes that merge beautifully with her lyrics; and two, her voice is generally clear and clean, without the layers of reverb that nearly every other vocalist automatically uses to distance themselves from the audience and make their truly trivial work sound terribly important. St. Vincent uses plenty of vocal effects, but when she applies a patch to her voice, she has a good reason for it.
I was turned on to St. Vincent several years ago by an extraordinary guitarist in Seattle whose taste in music I found questionable at best. Usually I’d listen to his recommendations and wind up moaning “Oh, for fuck’s sake” thirty seconds into the first track. But I did not feel that way about St. Vincent: I found her mesmerizing and extraordinarily gifted. On St. Vincent, she does nothing to dispel my admiration, and while my readers know that I’m never going to find perfection in any album, she comes pretty close—certainly as close as Amanda Palmer did in Theatre of Evil. I was fortunate enough to see her show at La Cigale last month and was absolutely knocked out by her performance. With fewer electronic patches in a live setting, her sound is delightfully rougher and edgier, her voice is as clear as spring water and she’s terribly sexy even when engaged in android-like choreographed moves.
St. Vincent opens with “Rattlesnake,” a recorded piece of one-woman theatre that is both gripping and illuminating. The scene is this: Annie is alone in the middle of nowhere in the Texas sands, buck-naked. Only the power lines serve to link her to civilization, described both in lyric and in the flickering buzz of the background music. The vocal effects make it sound like you’re hearing her thoughts: the voice sounds compressed in layers of brain cotton. As she surveys the scene, she casually notices the possibility of danger in her isolation while making a tenuous but comforting connection to the civilized world through art:
I see the snake holes dotted in the sand
As if the Seurat painted the Rio Grande
Am I the only the one in the only world?
As she ponders her isolation, primal, gut-level fear begins to speed through her nervous system, separating her further from the civilized self:
The only sound out here is my own breath
And my feet stuttering to make a path
Am I the only one in the only world?
Is that the wind finally picking up?
Is that a rattle sounding from the brush?
I’m not the only one in the only world
With the ironic discovery that the presence of the rattlesnake means she is not alone, her voice changes into an eerie laugh as the absurdity of the thought and her own vulnerability begin to engulf her. At this point, her vocal turns into that of a woman running in and out of breath as she flees the relentless danger, the relentless fear:
Running running running rattle behind me
Running running running no one will ever find me
Sweating sweating sweating rattle behind me
Running running running no one will ever find me
The tension builds through a ripping guitar solo before the music comes to a stop: there is no happy ending or ending of any kind. We are left with the image of the naked woman fleeing from the sudden appearance of a threat to survival that does not exist in the civilized world. It would be shocking indeed for any person used to the day-to-day with its illusion of safety to find themselves in such a predicament. The stripping of her clothes is symbolic of her desire to disconnect herself from civilization, which is itself disconnected from primal instinct. The symbolism of the power lines is multi-faceted; part of it lies in the question, “What shall we do with all this useless power?” when it is of no help whatsoever in a situation like this; but it also highlights the vulnerability inherent in our dependence on technology as a means of connecting to what we know as “the world.” This is a very wordy interpretation of a song that is better experienced: it hits you on an instinctual level and you find yourself hooked into the fear. Here, listen!
Annie returns to the mundane for “Birth in Reverse,” a melodic driver that exhibits her absurd sense of humor, her remarkable voice and her willingness to expand our perception of the commonplace:
Oh, what an ordinary day
Take out the garbage, masturbate
The song’s movement is accelerated by some superb guitar work full of hang-time syncopation and a steady drum beat. The lyrics are more ambiguous, but riffing off the artist’s assertion that the creation myth was a thematic thread and combining that with her continuing rebirth as an artist, I would interpret this “report from the edge” as “life in the middle of the social alienation that I need to feel to discover who I am.” She very specifically describes it as a “birth in reverse in America,” and that rings true with my own experience: one of my primary motivations for escaping the USA was the creepy feeling of living in a society that was choosing to move backwards. I saw a culture determined to eliminate rational thought and intelligent discussion and replace it with blind patriotism and a weird religious fundamentalism based the truly acrobatic connection between the faith of The Prince of Peace, worship of the military and the sacred right of gun ownership. Whether that was what St. Vincent had in mind or not, the song helped me clarify my own thoughts and feelings about my experience, and that’s the greatest gift an artist can give anyone.
“Prince Johnny” displays the beauty of Annie’s voice as she relates the tale of a relational black hole: those situations where you have a friend who is hell-bent on self-destruction but there isn’t a fucking thing you can do about it. You have to accept the fact that there’s an experience they need to have and respect their choices, no matter how much anguish you feel or how superior you think you are. Another more complex emotion is perceptively captured in the last verse: the frustration one feels when your well-intended compassion is devalued by the object of compassion, which in turn makes you reflect on the purity of your motives . . . and in turn forces you to defend your purity: “But honey don’t mistake my affection/For another spit and penny-style redemption/’Cause we’re all sons of someones.” The song is very moving and thought-provoking; the melodic movement is exceptionally strong; and St. Vincent’s phrasing is thoroughly captivating. It’s followed by “Huey Newton,” where Annie finds herself “entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones” in a stream-of-fragmented-consciousness induced by insomnia, recounting “flash cards” from Internet surfing, random memories, floating bits of mental material . . . the truly modern experience of the brain rummaging through stimuli on autopilot while working with a fried navigation system. Some might find this a cul-de-sac song, interesting but of limited appeal, but I would argue that the experience Annie conveys so vividly here is a very common, very human experience in a time when technology is becoming more deeply integrated with consciousness. I love the extended musical passage in the middle; this is one of her most fascination compositions.
The track “Digital Witness” exposes our weird, addictive, contradictory relationship with the Internet and social media. We bitch about privacy and post selfies and confessionals. We seek love, affection and attention through technology while remaining dimly aware that the relationships have little connection to reality. St. Vincent’s performance highlights how intentional and powerful she is when it comes to her performance and the words she chooses: when she tosses off the word “yeah” in between the lines of the verses, it immediately calls up a picture of someone with eyes fixed on the screen ignoring the living, breathing presence of another person in the room, a real person transformed into an irrelevant distraction while we focus on the unreal images that flow before our eyes. The fixation and ironic isolation of social media addiction is depicted quite literally and economically:
What’s the point of even sleeping?
If I can’t show it if you can’t see me?
What’s the point of doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?
There are two songs on St. Vincent that are sonically staged like Sinead O’Connor’s opuses that accentuate the vocal and shift the supporting music to deep background: both are deeply moving, achingly beautiful songs of human experience. The first is “I Prefer Your Love,” written about Annie’s experience of caring for her sick mother. The contrast between the irritating and trivial aspects of everyday life in the city (“Name-tagged tourists, sick at the sight of them/Tight-walking the sidewalk in spite of them”) and the humbling, focusing experience at the sick-bed vividly illustrates how easy it is to lose touch with what is important and who is important in our lives; the assumption that they will always be there for us proves to be a disturbingly fragile reality. The bedside scene that closes the song never fails to bring tears to my eyes and a touch of fear to my heart:
Sure as mother licking her finger to wipe the blush and
Smudge from my cheek and wonder what will become of your little one
But all the good in me is because of you
I prefer your love to Jesus
The “love of Jesus” seems a meaningless abstraction when the person who first gave you real, human love is suffering before your eyes. After listening to this song, I don’t know how anyone can dismiss St. Vincent with the dismissive term “eccentric.” This is as real and as human as it gets.
A tiny bouquet of power chords à la The Kinks’ “The Hard Way” opens “Regret,” one of my favorite performances on the album. St. Vincent’s voice shifts from a woman who’s just gotten out of bed to one soaring in flight with the beauty of the melody; both are terribly attractive and compelling. I love the wordplay in the first verse, which pretty much describes how my mind works in the morning: oh-another-day-background-noise-clever-thought-random-memories-including-my-fuck-ups-and-wish-I’d-dones:
Morning, pry the windows open
Let in what’s so terrifying
Summer is as faded as a lone cicada call
Memories so bright I gotta squint just to recall
Regret the words I’ve bitten more than the ones
I ever said
Regret does tend to turn us inward and make us aware of our existential isolation; the chorus “Who is the one animal all by yourself/All of us” is a simultaneously liberating and depressing reality. The diversity of sound throughout the song is fabulous, reflecting our many moods and directional shifts as we stumble through existence. I love the bite of the electric guitar and the bass movement in the arrangement; the layered sounds that fill my headphones in the verses and instrumental passages fill me with excitement. I also love the false ending after the lines, “I’m afraid of heaven because I can’t stand the heights/I’m afraid of you because I can’t be left behind.” After a second or two of silence, we hear Annie moan, “Oh well,” and the rhythm session explodes on cue, like the inexorable movement of the day. “Regret” is one of the most exciting new songs I’ve heard in a very long time.
As a BDSM practitioner, I’m intensely aware of the diverse possibilities of power exchange, which are not as rigid as the vanilla sex crowd may think. I’ve known many people who’ve switched from top to bottom and bottom to top as the power dynamics play themselves out. The track “Bring Me Your Loves” describes a power shift (“I took you off your leash/But I can’t, no I can’t make you heel”), but even more perceptive is the depiction of the ravenous sexual appetite common to those who take their sex seriously and playfully. You hear it in the demanding, staccato chorus (“Bring me your loves-all your loves-your loves-I wanna love them too ya know”) but even more vividly in the closing lines: “We both have our rabid hearts/Feral from the very start.” As long as the intensity is there, what does it matter who’s on top? The music is suitably gothic, and St. Vincent’s vocal sounds like her libido is pounding away with impatience.
“Psychopath” disarms you from the start because the images that the word calls up in your mind are not the sounds of an electronic power pop dance song. Like in “Regret,” we get to hear St. Vincent in low and high register, a contrast I could listen to forever. The simile where we hear the word “psychopath” reflects universal usage (“Runnin’ down the highway like a psychopath”), and what’s driving the feeling is the desire created by distance:
You said, “Honey, quit your worrying,
Distance is exactly like a blowing wind,
Putting out the embers and the tiny flames and
Keeping the big ones burning”
Driven by insistent bass and drums, this song flows with ease and yes, it’s a wonderful dance number. It’s followed by the layered rhythms of “Every Tear Disappears,” where subtle differences between the core rhythm, the synth rhythm and Annie’s phrasing come together to create the feeling of being in and out of sync—the dominant experience of human beings living in a jerky, hyper-speed world. When Annie sings, “Call the twenty-first century/Tell her ‘give us a break'” I want to shout, “Amen!”
Oh, god I hate the fuck out of it when great albums have to end, but if they have to end, going out with a song like “Severed Crossed Fingers” is the way to do it. I tear up just thinking about this extraordinary beautiful song, a statement that may surprise you if you haven’t heard the song and you’re reacting to the gruesome image in the title. The image is borrowed from a short story by the novelist Lorrie Moore, where you can read the line, “He thinks of severed, crossed fingers found perfectly survived in the wreckage of a local plane crash last year.” That is a powerful image of hope in the face of all logic and all odds; it makes me wonder how many severed crossed fingers were found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
In our daily lives, we hold on to hope in so many ways. Once I was working at a job I had come to loathe; I had started that job full of the youthful, naive belief that I could make a difference, but after months of dealing with mean-spirited political bullshit, I had turned bitter and cynical. An older guy I worked with—his name was Anthony—saw my distress and let me unload for a while. He said to me something I’ll never forget, “When the hope is gone, it’s all over.” I thought of Anthony as I heard St. Vincent’s opening lines:
When your calling ain’t calling back to you
I’ll be side-stage mouthing lines for you
Humiliated by age, terrified of youth
I got hope but my hope isn’t helping you
The last line echoes Annie’s despair in “Prince Johnny,” another situation where optimism failed as a change strategy. Throughout the song, St. Vincent keeps us suspended on that knife-edge of hopeless hope; whether it’s driven by our fear, our survival instinct or is simply a part of our DNA, it persists despite the evidence accumulated against it. She takes us through the ugliness of life that argues against hope and the deep bitterness we feel when hope is dashed . . . when we feel foolish for having believed in something . . . a relationship, a career, a spiritual belief:
Wake up puddle-eyed
Sleeping in a suit
The truth is ugly
Well, I feel ugly too . . .
Spitting our guts from their gears
Draining our spleen over years
Found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there
Well you stole the heart right out my chest
Changed the words that I know best
Found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there
The plaintive vocal of the bridge, set in deep background in contrast to the front-and-center vocal of the verses, reflects the anguish of the eternal struggle between hope and reality: “Holding on and on and on, enough, enough, enough.”
St. Vincent’s vocal performance on this song is simply one of the most powerful on record. Like on “I Prefer Your Love,” the soundscape is cleared for her vocal, and the sheer beauty of her voice combined with her intensely disciplined approach to singing—as if she is completely tuned into the meaning of every syllable and pause—makes for a listening experience that is the perfect marriage of artist, voice and human being. She told Pitchfork, “I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done,” and I completely believe it—this is not a performance created from spare parts. While the song expresses deep disappointment, the palpable humanity you hear in her voice reassures you that she is not likely to give up hope any time soon. Like Sisyphus, she has work to do, and Camus showed us that the meaning is in the struggle, in the hope itself.
All I know is this: after eight long months of slogging through new releases and hearing endless streams of mediocre, copycat crap, St. Vincent has restored my hope in the future of music. St. Vincent is a wondrous record, exquisitely arranged, superbly performed, accessible and complex at the same time. The songs themselves could easily be transformed into acoustic numbers; I figured out most of the chords during the second run-through. The simplicity of the chord structure allows for extensive experimentation, just as it does on Kind of Blue, and also helps focus the listener on the integration of music and lyrics. The melodies are delightful and compelling, and the supporting musicians talented and tight. St. Vincent has given us a gift that will endure for ages, and I will keep my fingers firmly crossed that she will continue to bless the world with her art for many years to come.