A SAVAGE BEAUTY | Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
The Music of Annie Clark by David D. Robbins Jr.
he strings begin. Annie Clark tilts her head back. Her mouth opens wide, pronouncing each syllable — clearly luxuriating in the feeling of the words easing from her mouth. It’s the transitional moment when possession turns into offering. Her intonation is the elegant wrapping of the gift: “But I’m a wife in watercolors / I can wash away … / Save me / Save me / Save me, from what I want.” The opening strings are Parisian by way of the avant garde. She quickly shuffles back from the microphone. Her guitar-playing technique is intense and tightly focused. Electrified robotic spasms jolt down her arms. These aren’t the exaggerated histrionics we’ve come to associate with the stale throb of masculine shred gods. She plucks a string and her hand flies back with skilled flippancy, as if tossing sparks. In a killer red dress, she’s an exploding petal. There’s nothing like seeing Clark lose herself in her music. Everything about her, from her looks, to her guitar playing, to the music itself, is tantalizingly peculiar. She’s the gawky school girl whose mind is so full of ideas, that her movements stumble out fragmented and without segue. Her mannerisms are beguiling. It’s all part of Clark’s beautifully strange language. Passion breaking free of flesh. Or maybe the picture is simpler than that. Watching her play “Your Lips Are Red” is enough to make one realize that at some time, everyone has imagined rocking out like Danzig or Iron Maiden, including Clark.
“And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s watching me.”
— St. Vincent, Laughing With A Mouth Full of Blood
The New York Times, borrowing from Clark’s own self-description, titled a 2009 article about the St. Vincent singer, “Friendly, And Just a Bit Creepy.” Listening to her speak in interviews or watching her onstage, Clark seems more curious and thoughtful than eerie. Oddity is the way brilliance often manifests itself. The 27-year-old ingenue has an assiduous mind, cultivated by her experiences and a youthful absorption. She grew up listening to her uncle play jazz and cried at first hearing John Coltrane’s spiritual masterpiece, “A Love Supreme”. Clark studied jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston before dropping out after three years. She played in frock with psych-folk tent flock, the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. Somewhere along the way, her curious nature led her to the writings of Philip Roth, Charles Bukowski and the film scores of Pierrott le Fou and The Wizard of Oz — which she later used as inspiration for her sophomore release, “Actor” (2009). In an interview, Clark expressed admiration for literary theorist Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” — a book filled to the brim with fragmented and effusive writing about the gestures of lovers, taken from the point-of-view of the author and other famed writers.
Visually, Clark has a long and graceful neck, seemingly better suited for Elizabethan England than modern-day Manhattan. She’s just on the pale side of Helena Bonham-Carter, and shares a resemblance to actress Sean Young in her youth. Her hair is dark-black and as unbridled as her music. In short, she’s absolutely stunning. If Barthes were alive today, perhaps he would have penned an essay about Clark’s face, as he did with Greta Garbo in “Mythologies”. It would have started with her eyes, which are enormous — long lashes fluttering like Betty Boop incarnate. Her wide gaze gives the impression she’s taking in an inordinate amount of the world.
“Call me when you want to build a nest.” — Annie Clark, Bliss
In 2003, while in school, Clark released a three-track EP with friends, entitled “Ratsliveonnoevilstar” (2003). The music isn’t necessarily the St. Vincent we know now, but there are glimpses. The jazz-based foundation of the EP would find its way into “Marry Me” (2007), on tracks like “Human Racing” and “What Me Worry”. “Circle”, the second song on “Ratsliveonnoevilstar”, is a guitar wind-up with shades of a singing style later perfected as St. Vincent. The vocal phrasing, with pauses between individual words, is clearly there. The dreamy scaling is there, in verses like, “All my talking ceased / And you sound like a telephone / Drowning, yes / And drowning, no / You’re softer than sympathy.”
“Marry Me” wasn’t the first time Clark had marriage on her mind while writing a song. Just like the later-written, “All My Stars Are Aligned”, the EP’s lead track, “Bliss”, mentions “building a nest” — a song swirling around questions of matrimony, sexuality, identity and freedom.
“Ratsliveonnoevilstar” feels like a battle between two hemispheres, the pretty jazz predictability of accomplished and studied playing, versus dissonance and the ability to create compositional surprise. “Circle” has an edge to it, teetering on something darkly promising, peaking out through quirky and broken lyricism, “Missed the sign of promised land / Hey mama, aren’t we there yet? / I’ll call you on the telephone / I’m okay / My stomach hurts / But this is not about me / I know it never was, you see … You think I’m the mess here / And I don’t need this.” But it also holds dull moments, like the all-too-easy and predictable chorus about “coming full circle”. Eventually, one of Clark’s greatest strengths as St. Vincent, would become her ability to combine disparate sounds, moods, and musical fragments with delicacy. Songs on “Marry Me” and “Actor” would effortlessly alternate between blissful strings and woodwinds to scuzzy guitar and discord. Clark would find a way to float her pretty vocals above complex orchestrations like a gentle wind across broken bottle tops.
“I’m not one small atomic bomb / I’m not anything at all.”
— St. Vincent, Now Now
Clark opened her debut record, “Marry Me”, with the double declarative, “Now Now”, a phrase also used to sooth the angry. “Now Now” is a song about defining oneself outside the limiting opinions of others. The song’s protagonist lists a litany of things she is not, even proclaiming she has disappeared entirely. In one of the verses, Clark sings, “I’m not any, any, any, anything.” If you listen closely, it can sound like she’s singing, “I’m not Annie, Annie, Annie, Annie – thing …” It’s most likely not purposeful. But on a subconscious level, it’s the lyrical moment where Annie is shed and St. Vincent emerges, confident and threatening: “You don’t mean that, I’ll make you sorry.” It’s a wonderful way to open a first record. “Now Now” uses a full-spirited children’s chorus, and a prettily-picked guitar that erupts into a frenzy of crashing drums, and symphonic Beatles-like majesty. It’s a structure laboriously built, brick by brick, before St. Vincent decides to burn the whole house down in a wave of cacophonous release. Forget the jazz man’s fanfare. “Now Now” announced with immediacy and explosive force, “I Am St. Vincent.”
But it’s the elaborate, “Your Lips Are Red”, that scrawled itself so furiously in mushroom clouds of consciousness. Bursts of harsh piano, screeching guitar, and a circus of crisscrossing instrumentation ignite white hot before the tempo slows. Clark turns a simple bit of wordplay into an exquisiteness as elegant as Etruscan calligraphy, “Your skin so fair, it’s not fair / Your skin so fair, it’s not fair.” The album contains a number of memorable phrases, from the Lady Macbeth/Snow White allusion, “Come sit right here and sleep while I slip poison in your ear”, to the cheeky humor of “We’ll do what Mary and Joseph did, / Without the kid”.
“Oh, my love …” St. Vincent, Landmines
The “Marry Me” album is a perfect bridge between the work on Clark’s two early EPs and “Actor”. Her music was shifting into something instrumentally more complex and lyrically exotic. The labyrinthine “Landmines” is wispy in its smoky architecture, gorgeously ambiguous and non-linear. It’s the fruit of lotus eaters. It’s also obviously a love song, but one that exists as undertow to a range of shifting images. The song moves freely from landmines, to hidden hearts, to buried pearls, to a luxurious Paris re-created in the consciousness of love, to the unspoken sense that lovers have. It all swells gently in a jazzy whisper of harp and strings, that unravel lithely into fantasy. Literally and figuratively, everything consequential about this song exists under a veneer. The dangers are deeply buried. It’s a majestic creation, and one of two songs referencing the deathly image of having one’s eyes covered.
The song, “Marry Me”, with its torch-song piano chords, and Clark’s silky promise, “I’ll be so good to you”, is one of St. Vincent’s most seductive tracks. It’s a song that works as a sincere plea. (Despite its origin being a phrase uttered by the character Maeby from the television comedy “Arrested Development.”) What makes this track work so well is the moment it blossoms from a subdued sadness into a sexily buoyant R&B-styled groove built around her run-on lyrics, “Many people wanna make money / Make love / Make friends / Make peace with death.”
“And I do my best impression of weightlessness now too …”
— St. Vincent, Just the Same But Brand New
Clark is certainly aware of her own empyrean air, and the effect she has on others. Take for example the video for “Marrow”, which blends Disney-like flutes, a lyrical cataloging of human body parts, and a thumping reverb-bass with buzzsaw guitar. In the video, Clark walks down a gravel road, singing softly, as the people she passes become fixated on her, following in her wake. Then, like a game of freeze, every time she turns around to look at them, the camera frame stops, the people remain still, and the view quickly pans in and out, giving the followers an ominous movement. If there’s one thing to take away from the video it’s this: Clark is desire by proxy.
It’s easy to see how adept Clark is at artistic conceptualization as a whole, like David Bowie before her — whether it’s through the playful mythologizing she contributes to her nom de plume or through the music itself. “Actor” further pushed the combination of mellow melodies and abrasive guitar. The album is a jagged toggling of method and madness, honey and incongruity. It’s poison sweet, and Clark is its paradox — an eccentric Snow White offering her own apple. The record opens with back-to-back tracks about what it means to hold secrets. “The Strangers” is a song about the poorly-hidden indiscretions of a partner. “Save Me From What I Want” includes the lyric, “Honey, what reveals you, is what you try and hide away.” The topics on this phantasm masterpiece are motley. It’s an album about regrets of conscience, self-destruction, restlessness, love, a child’s fear, and honesty in relationships — including a track that makes metaphor of two bodies like wrecking balls. However, it’s not all sad-sack. Clark writes a clever bit of self-deprecating humor about being overly gloomy in “Black Rainbow”, “There’s a black rainbow above my house / Match the curtains and the floor.” One of the album’s best tracks was only included in digital format. “Oh, My God” is a piece similar in tone to the aged, ethereal mood of “Led Zeppelin III” and “That’s the Way”. “Actor” is also full of dare-devil twists, cryptic and elusive, revealing a darkness under it’s cinematic flourish.
“We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out.”
— St. Vincent, The Bed
The biggest difference between “Marry Me” and “Actor” is the intensity of separation between the prettier and rough elements. The contrasts are remarkable. “Actor Out of Work” thumps forward hungrily in a schizophrenic fit of horns and clobbering drums. Clark’s voice and “ooohing” background vocals work as salves against an increasing delirious pace and rising abrasiveness. “The Strangers” mixes clashing images of marriage and fighting. The track begins as a dalliance, before a charged guitar detonates. St. Vincent, unpredictably, ends the record with the quiet “The Sequel” — a darkly poetic distillation that reads as stream-of-consciousness, “Oh honey, I was there in the dark where you lay /And I saw you with a scent on your hands, /Going out to get you something / One, two, three flight / Apartment / Streetside / Bodies like wrecking balls / Fuck, fuck with dynamite.” Clark’s music is extravagantly romantic, like the films, soundtracks and authors that inspire her. Her songs are stolen kisses in the dark, damsels in distress, hallucinatory flights of fancy, a mix of cinematic chiaroscuro and plushness — whose greatest allure rests in the riling of both beauty and beast.