Sunday, March 9, 2014

album review: 'st. vincent' by st. vincent

The term 'indie pop' has always got on my nerves. Not the music (for the most part), but the genre term itself. Springing up in the mid-80s, it describes music that was too weird or off-beat for the mainstream, but had a more melodic focus and was less characterized by angst. What always got on my nerves was the connotation associated with the genre: that simply being an indie act gave them music critic credibility they didn't always deserve. Furthermore, it denigrated pop music as corporate and derivative - and yeah, that's often true, but it's hard to deny that musical trends started in the indie scene often cross over into pop music or mainstream culture at large, and sometimes mainstream acts can do it just as well. And let's not forget, there was a point in the 90s where big chunks of the indie pop scene was enthusiastically embraced by adult alternative, shoegaze, emo, and even mainstream pop music (the 90s were weird like that).

And honestly, a lot of it really sucked. Sure, there were gems in the rough, but a large reason I don't love 90s alternative music like most critics is because the twee explosion of indie pop often fell into gutless bland garbage that didn't have the brains or deeper insight to back up the pretentiousness. And look, while I get everyone has different tastes, the 'revolt into childhood' (the embrace of twee innocence and focusing on living little ordinary lives) attitude has never ever been something I've liked. And since most of it involved fitting with a very white, middle-class, mostly educated ideal, it always felt trite, small, and in the end not exactly progressive or all that intellectual. And if you embraced the 'twee' attitudes ironically, that was even worse, because not only were you promoting by association, you lost the best element of good indie pop which was the heartfelt earnestness. 

And with the growth of 90s nostalgia, the revival of the 'hipster ideal', and the increased mainstream success of the indie scene, I feel that some of these trends are going to be coming back. And from a cultural standpoint, it makes a lot of sense - my generation is less cynical than Gen X, we're a lot less embarrassed of liking the sillier elements of our past, and many of the 'revolt to childhood' ideals aren't far from the truth when people my age can't get jobs and are stuck living with their parents. But to some extent, these trends aren't exactly healthy for long term mature cultural development, just as Gen X cynicism wasn't precisely healthy either. It's because of these trends, for instance, that tropes like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exist and have widespread popularity.

Enter St. Vincent, the stage name of Annie Clark, singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso. Her name was originally taken from a Nick Cave song, and honestly, it's kind of a perfect fit because St. Vincent has a very similar brand of subversive darkness to her material. Starting with her debut album Marry Me, she's made a point of taking twee indie pop elements and tropes and then undercutting them with a seething, disturbing madness, and it's incredibly effective in a very baroque sense. It also helps matters that she's an incredibly inventive and talented songwriter, and all of her work has been pretty damn close to great. And thus, I was looking forward to delving into her new self-titled album, which early buzz was suggesting was even more weird and twisted than previous releases. And thus, I took some time to really delve into this record, try to dig deep and parse it out - what did I find?

Well, this is a tricky one - because while the self-titled St. Vincent album is very good and damn close to great, I wouldn't say it's her best album or even one that plays most to her strengths. It's definitely a weird, twisted album and probably her least accessible to date, but at the same time, I'm not sure it's a brand of weirdness that will stick with me in the long term or have the same emotional impact. In other words, I don't think it's as good as Actor or Strange Mercy, but it is still very good and worth listening to all the same.

So what makes this record stand out? Well, the instrumentation for one: it's easily her stiffest, most mechanical album to date, with sharp crunch in the guitars and more prominent synth melodies. And while there are plenty of moments that call back to the grander orchestrations of her previous records, this is a much more synthetic affair that sacrifices flow for rough edges and experimental crackle, and yet you can tell that every point was meticulously controlled and limited. What this means is that pure guitar texture is often pitched out for hard blocks of distortion, leaving the synths and Annie Clark's vocals to pick up the melodies, and that does tend to leave a few songs rather clunky. That's not saying there aren't some great grooves on this album, with 'Regret', 'Psychopath', 'Birth In Reverse', 'Digital Witness' and even 'Rattlesnake' having some great driving force, but not the same organic texture - which isn't really a problem, but it does make the songs a little more claustrophobic than I feel they could be. That's not saying that St. Vincent doesn't tackle more 'impressive' songs - tracks like 'Huey Newton' and 'Bring Me Your Loves' have that grander sound that St. Vincent is known for, but on some of the slower ballads, I'm not quite sure the simplified approach to melody supports them as well. The best one of the bunch is 'Severed Crossed Fingers', mostly due to the high synth line and the guitar actually having a little more pluck, but songs like 'Every Tear Disappears' feel a little inert to me.

Now granted, this might be an issue of the vocal production, which deserves some scrutiny here because it's definitely a departure from form. Annie Clark's vocals have always been beautiful and there's no exception here, but one of the reasons I used to find them so emotionally effective on previous albums was the intimacy, almost to the point of discomfort considering the content of the lyrics. But here the vocal production makes them sound more distant and booming, which definitely stands out on some of the more intimidating, quasi-nightmarish tracks, but I'm not sure it was worth sacrificing the emotional closeness for it. But then again, I get why St. Vincent did this: this is an album with an external focus, not the baring of hidden secrets that she did on previous records.

This takes us to lyrics and themes, and remember when I spent the first bit of this review talking about the regression to childhood innocence? Well, regression and self-definition stand as major themes of this record, but St. Vincent has long ago discarded innocence in the dumpster which lends this album reality behind the lyrics, especially with kids in this day and age. Indeed, this album explores a regression to a 'simpler' time, less driven by analytic thinking and more by emotion, which calls to mind themes Young The Giant explored this year on Mind Over Matter (with less tact, nuance, instrumental complexity, and good music). This has led some critics to brand St. Vincent as an 'anti-internet' album, but while songs like 'Huey Newton' and 'Digital Witness' explore youth immersion online, it's less judgement and more commentary from the sidelines. This mostly comes down to a matter of framing, as Annie Clark is always very conscious to include herself in the dark picture, not ascendant above it.

And thus with that regression back to simpler times, you get the fear of the unknown without technology in 'Rattlesnake', you get the search for parental guidance on the heartbreaking 'Prince Johnny' and 'I Prefer Your Love', you get the frustration with restrictive adult standards of decency and communication in 'Regret', and the search for a rawer connection in 'Bring Me Your Loves' and 'Psychopath'. That's also why 'Severed Crossed Fingers' works so effectively as an album closer, stressing in gory detail how it might be very difficult to overcome that sterile addiction to technology and existential emptiness, but there is hope in the aftermath for the generation that might emerge from the wreckage, even if we can't see it yet. And this is another case where the instrumentation operates as an extended metaphor as well - there's scratchy, harsh-edged explosive force, and yet it's never allowed to explode - instrumentation shaped by technology and yet critical of it. It's a tough balance to maintain, and unfortunately, I don't think this album manages to hold it the entire way, mostly because the emotional stakes aren't as clearly defined. You don't get that moment of crushing realization on this record where the themes crystallize for massive impact, like on 'Touch' from Random Access Memories by Daft Punk, or 'We Real Cool' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on Push The Sky Away, which I do feel weakens this album slightly.

But let me stress here that I'm being very critical of this record - because honestly, it's an intriguing, intelligent, and at points very moving album from a great artist with a beautiful voice, and I definitely liked way more songs than I didn't. But at the same time, it's jerky, brash, and not particularly subtle - even lyrically, where I feel Annie Clark went broader than she should have on some tracks - and thus it doesn't have the same emotional resonance with me. But there's a place for broader emotions when it comes to records with more of a pop focus, so I'm giving this album a 8/10 and a definite recommendation. I can't guarantee you'll like the self-titled album from St. Vincent - it's abrasive, it's noisy, and it doesn't exactly hide its message behind pretty turns of phrase - but you will remember it, and it's definitely worth your time for many listens.

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