st. vincent – marry me

St. Vincent Marry Me
beggars banquet

it’s a largely accepted fact in 2014 that annie clark is a preeminent fixture of pop music; her eccentric guitar skills have become spectacle, over-saturated in fuzz distortion and often processed through synthesizers, while the depth of her songwriting has become increasingly formidable over the span of four albums.  but in 2007, clark had yet to solidify her musical identity as st. vincent.  she had done stints in sufjan stevens’ touring band and had worked with the polyphonic spree, but had offered up no solo work of her own.  that, in part, is why marry me continues to be such a monumental album, one that clearly shaped clark’s career as opposed to functioning as a mere stepping-stone.

this distinction is critical: the trajectory of st. vincent has always been an evolution, never a reinvention, and marry me contains the foundation of that vision.  wisps of the grandeur that would eventually control efforts like 2011’s strange mercy and this year’s self-titled album exist, but they’re muted, almost as if clark was suppressing innate artistic urges in order to develop them more cohesively before embarking on a full exploration.  nonetheless, by the time she delivers “your lips are red,” the album’s third track, early signifiers are there: jagged melodies, stuttering guitars, surreal imagery.

despite the presence of those key elements, the dominating component of marry me is decidedly acoustic.  the jagged melodies found in “your lips are red” are delivered primarily by a piano, not a guitar or synthesizer, and string flourishes add an element of the baroque that was so in vogue amongst clark’s new york contemporaries in the mid-2000s.  witness this combination again on the album’s title track, a plaintive ballad propelled by a soft piano progression and enhanced by a string ensemble.  this is also one of the first tastes of clark’s quick, understated wit delivered through song.  the song’s (and album’s) title is lifted from a running gag found in the initial run of arrested development, effectively dispelling any submissive or patriarchal undertones that may initially be conveyed, and lines like “we’ll do what mary and joseph did / without the kid” continue to subvert expectations and suggest that if mutual affection is going to be legally consummated, it will be on clark’s terms.

marry me is also unique within st. vincent’s discography in that it’s the only album to prominently feature clark’s talent on an acoustic guitar.  many of those skills evidently translated to her electric explorations, but they somehow seem even more impressive when stripped of their bombastic tendencies.  “paris is burning” is initially structured around relatively intricate acoustic finger-picking before diverging down the path of a bizarre waltz foreshadowed by clark’s apocalyptic lyrics.  but even as the meter shifts and a robust hammond organ starts jockeying for attention with an angular electric riff, the song still feels critically informed by the initial acoustic work, as if the eventual cacophony wouldn’t have been as meaningful – or even possible – without that ominous contrast.

the album’s key triptych is delivered late, and rightfully so.  listeners are required to peel back the outer layers of annie clark’s musical onion before they receive the privilege of experiencing the true potential of her artistic ingenuity.  “landmines” is a five-minute slow-burner that compounds clark’s affinity for meter changes and gradually shifting instrumentation (the harp sweeps contrasting martial snare flams almost make the song), but she also recycles hints of subject matter from “paris is burning” into the morose metaphor “landmines” is centered around.  “we put a pearl in the ground” pulls its title from an early lyric in “landmines,” and the use of “we” instead of “i” in the title is crucial, as it implies a sense of unity and resolution.  it’s the only track on marry me that clark doesn’t appear on (long-time david bowie collaborator mike garson provides the piano interlude), but its ornamented melody is derived from clark’s vocal contour on “landmines,” and the placid piano timbre further suggests a peaceful outcome.

“human racing” is the consonant result of the path taken by “landmines” and “we put a pearl in the ground.”  the album’s penultimate track is also the clearest foreshadowing of the subsequent course st. vincent’s career would take.  marry me largely favors chordal structure over riffs, but “human racing” blurs the line.  clark’s guitar work is so fascinatingly intricate that, while she mostly remains within the harmonic confines of the song’s progression, the ornamentations and passing tones almost push the vocals out of the spotlight to make the instrumentation the memorable component of the piece.  the ascending interludes provided by a small ensemble of woodwinds and brasswinds are also indicative of later st. vincent tropes: add a bit more low-end and a more intense bridge, and “human racing” wouldn’t sound out of place on actor or clark’s 2012 collaboration with david byrne.

clark’s biblical references are sparse but evident, perhaps a witty concession to her adopted stage name, but her lyrics especially thrive on metaphor and the simplest of statements that are incredibly profound.  an example of the latter is contained in the chorus of “the apocalypse song,” as she examines the basic principles of physics before declaring “it’s time / you’re light / i guess you are afraid of what everyone is made of.” and just like that, a seemingly simple fear becomes an all-consuming one.  clark’s use of metaphor and surreal imagery becomes more prominent on subsequent efforts, but its origins are firmly grounded in marry me; religious imagery and wordplay are at their finest on “jesus saves, i spend,” and as stated before, “landmines” would carry no weight if not for its desolate, war-torn descriptions and comparison of relationship struggles to minefields.

marry me feels timeless, not so much indicative of a particular point in the history of pop music as it is a crucial one in annie clark’s musical presentation.  as she continues to add to her discography and accolades, it’s hard to not see this inaugural album becoming an even more critical reference point.

st. vincent – st. vincent

even when hiding behind the understated folk sounds of her 2007 debut marry me, it was evident that annie clark was not, and will never be, amongst musicians easily recyclable in the contemporary indie rock climate.  as st. vincent, she demands listeners to pay attention to her lyricism and phenomenal guitar work simultaneously – a feat not easy to achieve – regardless of the genre she’s happened to settle into.  clark has largely gone electric since her debut, drawing on elements of funk, her love of horn arrangements, and angular guitar lines to develop a truly signature style.  maybe that’s why her newest album is self-titled; at this stage in the game, annie clark needs no introduction.

there’s this really thought-provoking article on the trajectory and meaning of the artwork on all of st. vincent’s albums, and it backs up my perception of her latest effort: this record just exudes self-confidence.  both “i prefer your love” and “regret” are comfortable, familiar st. vincent songs, and that’s why clark makes the audience wait until the middle of the album before they are heard.  the front half of st. vincent is full of eclectic aggression; the subject matter of clark’s songs is simple in delivery while slightly abstract in concept, but she staunches any apprehension with vehement orchestration.  album opener “rattlesnake” winds and strikes just like its namesake, with a slithering synthesizer line interrupted by interjections from clark’s voice and some pretty frenzied drumming, and lead single “birth in reverse” keeps the dust off of your dancing shoes.

some of clark’s most inspiring songwriting to date comes in the form of “huey newton.”  the track first finds her navigating through an ostinato synthesizer pattern and singing in her patented ethereal voice, but it soon transcends into a crushing guitar riff bolstered by a commanding, almost harsh vocal delivery that mirrors clark’s austere demeanor on the album cover.  her blend of tried and true with uncharted musical territory in terms of her own career is fearless; it’s something that started to take shape on strange mercy and has now been fully realized, three years later.

while elements of her collaboration with david byrne are evident on tracks like “digital witness,” st. vincent still feels like an album organically grown by annie clark.  i’ve always expected her music to challenge my perception of what is possible in the pop realm, and this batch of tunes certainly did not disappoint.  she may be easing herself into a palate rich with dirty synthesizers and fuzzy guitars, but this is akin to easing oneself into a swimming pool of cold water; there’s ample time to get out and try something new.  annie clark is only knee-high, still capable of writing songs as diverse as “severed crossed fingers” and “psychopath,” and her demonstrated musical intellect and curiosity suggests she’ll never go beyond waist-deep.

8.8/10

listen to a new song from st. vincent

st. vincent is gearing up for her self-titled fourth album, out february 25th via loma vista.  after a somewhat dramatic announcement of the album and its lead single “birth in reverse,” annie clark let another track go this morning.  check out the funky “digital witness” below.