Since her collaboration with David Byrne on Love This Giant, it seemed that Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, had set a new course, departing her musical curio shop of porcelain melodies and corroded guitar underpinnings for a style that would remain subversive but within a pop context.
Where she went feels dangerously like a retread of the outsider anxieties characteristic of Byrne’s musical persona, nods to which are pervasive in “Digital Witness,” the fifth track and first single from St. Vincent’s eponymous LP. “This is no time for confessing / I won’t bother your mind,” sings Clark, as if acknowledging by omission that she is indeed dressed in the “big suit” made famous by Byrne in Stop Making Sense. Whereas with Byrne the suit was little more than a sight gag played for satirical laughs, for Clark it’s a second skin, and the comfort with which she wears it is bewildering and enthralling.
St. Vincent is a confident album because it is so directly imitative of its influences. The opener “Rattlesnake” quicksteps with a crunchy, digitized amalgam of bass, guitar and keys reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” while “Huey Newton” is so firmly situated in the R&B stylings of the early ‘90s that you half-expect R. Kelly to step in for a verse or two.
Modern pop acts such as Snow Patrol and Metric can likewise be traced in “Regret” and “Psychopath,” both unabashedly optimistic songs offering unhinged perspectives on failed relationships and new love. Like peers past and present, Clark draws on the same ubiquitous well of pop sensibilities, which by all other accounts appeared completely tapped, producing catchy riffs and big choruses with her penchant for twisted tonal digressions and uneasy synthesized chords spruced throughout. (“Bring Me Your Loves” is potent example, the strings of the guitar sounding as if caught in a blender while falling down a set of stairs.)
For as showy as St. Vincent is on the surface, its charm lies in the subtlety with which it appropriates familiar elements without falling subject to them. Though she is most compelling on the album highlight “I Prefer Your Love,” a synth-driven slow dance ode to the strength we draw from the love of others, Clark almost achieves the same success with the album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers.” It’s a lament of lost love (evoking Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” in another moment of mimicry) in which she describes waking up “puddle—eyed, sleeping in the suit,” noting that “the truth is ugly. Well, I feel ugly too.” Wearing that big suit, the truth according to Clark is as hypnotic as it is strange.