She is not of this world. That sentence was all my friend used to describe a St. Vincent show I’d missed. Annie Clark, the woman behind St. Vincent, seems to have that effect on people. Specifically men, specifically indie rock dudes. This, inescapably, has often boiled down to the fact that Clark is a woman. Clark is also one of the most interesting and unique guitar players we’ve gotten in the last decade, ten years where we haven’t necessarily gotten a host of new and interesting guitarists. Consider some of the other major, defining indie acts in recent times. Arcade Fire, the National, Grizzly Bear, LCD Soundsystem — sure, these bands all use guitars, to great effect, and sometimes they do have guitarists that have their own distinct style. But they are all men, and they all play guitar to serve the greater whole of the song. Clark, on the other hand, is a lead guitarist through and through, capable of a dizzying array of textures and riffs, as many as you’d expect from a Robert Fripp fan with a few years at Berklee under her belt. So the thing is, she’s carving out territory as one of the definitive guitarists of her era, and she happens to be a woman. This is not something she can control, and it shouldn’t really be all that weird to us that she’s a skilled female guitarist anyway. Even so, for a lot of listeners, this seems to sole source of the mystique.
This is one of the thornier subjects of discussion when talking about St. Vincent. It’s inarguable that there’s something striking about Annie Clark when she plays, and that the stranger aspects of her intense guitar style are made all the weirder for the way they contrast with her appearance. By her own admission, Clark seems demure (and often is, when she speaks), and part of the shock is seeing all that noise come out of a person that looks so physically gentle. For many straight male music writers out there, it’s amplified by the fact that Clark is at once conventionally attractive, and yet fitting a brunette archetype so well as to push it into exoticism. It’s understandable that so many of those indie dudes are smitten, but it’s also easy to sympathize with Clark when she grows a bit tired of people asking her about how her gender plays a role in her image as an artist. After all, maybe her being female is an anomaly in the lineage of famous rock guitarists, but it is far from strange for an indie rock artist.
While it’s not entirely useful to keep talking about St. Vincent purely for the fact that she’s a woman who plays guitar well, there is something useful in the way she takes on a certain mystic aura because of it. It’s just that this juxtaposition, rather than being the single definition of her music, is one of many that she explores and pushes on (sometimes intentionally, sometimes by circumstance) over the course of the three solo albums she’s yet released. Her entire ethos is built on layers and halves clashing, her music always possessing a surgical precision even when the squalor kicks up. This has been one of the only criticisms leveled at St. Vincent since her debut was released in 2007, that she was occasionally too cerebral, her music aesthetically interesting but emotionally cold, save for her playing more ferociously in a live setting.
I’d argue that this has often been intentional, and that Clark’s actually deployed her looks towards that end. If you look at the progression of her albums aesthetically, then consider their covers, it almost looks like a play of artificiality vs. humanity, the image of a diminutive-seeming woman playing some sort of belligerent, fractured riff is just one other element in the whole concept. The cover of 2007′s Marry Me, an album of indie-pop more organic and typical of the time, is plain enough, with Clark simply staring out at you. With 2009′s Actor, it got a bit more detached, Clark in profile in an almost Stepford Wives-esque stillness, as if she was deliberately playing with the way people perceived her, just as she was dirtying up the prettiness of that album’s songs with darker tones musically and lyrically. Finally you get to Strange Mercy in 2011 and it’s just her mouth screaming out from within some elastic wall of white, the looks of St. Vincent finally subsumed by, well, what? White noise, maybe, the chatter surrounding her, or the crystalline chilliness in which she cloaked that album.
“It’s always more about chasing an abstraction,” Clark has said to describe her guitar-playing, but the same sentiment could be applied writ large to her music and to the persona St. Vincent, if not necessarily Annie Clark, cultivates. Her whole sound is based around things not being what they seem, or things seeming rooted to recognizable traits then bent out into some unexpected shape. There is definitely an ethereal quality to St. Vincent, and while her appearance and gender are certainly factors, they’re part of the much larger tapestry of fake-outs and subtle undercuts that make her music interesting. Because of this, it’s always a bit odd to consider the specificity of the real places Clark mentions in her lyrics (Avenue C in “Dilettante,” 2nd Ave. in “Just The Same But Brand New”), or biographical information. Is this the sound of someone who was born in Tulsa and grew up in Texas? Or even the sound of New York? My friend was dead-on in this regard: it doesn’t seem of this world. I recently listened to Strange Mercy on a night flight, and at least for this current version of St. Vincent that seems almost a perfect venue: a darkened cabin lined with yellow-orange pinpricks of no-smoking lights and filled with the low hum of the engine, the stark white of the plane interior encircling a window looking out into inky dark skies. It’s clinical — cold and anesthetized — but also impalpable — you know, you’re tens of thousands of feet in the air, aware that you’re moving but not entirely able to feel it. It’s the exact same sensation captured in the eerie glide of “Strange Mercy” or “Surgeon.”
For an artist with a relatively young career, there are big chunks of St. Vincent’s work that are under-represented here, or not represented at all. Marry Me is strong in its own right, but St. Vincent has improved immensely with each release (which is saying something, considering the strength of her music from the start), and the material on Actor and Strange Mercy feels much richer and more enduring than the stuff from her debut. Given how much there was to talk about with her solo material alone, I also chose to exclude anything from her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant, though that album’s more than worth a listen (particularly lead single “Who” and the Clark-centric “Weekends In The Dust” and “Ice Age,” but also live videos of their horn-based arrangements of St. Vincent songs). One song I really wanted to include was “Roslyn,” a gorgeously heart-rending track she worked on with Bon Iver; ultimately, it felt as if it was more of a Bon Iver song that Annie Clark guested on, and seemed tangential here, but if you haven’t heard it you need to check it out. With all that out of the way, here are ten of my favorite songs from the steadily impressive work St. Vincent has given us so far.
10. “Krokodil” (Krokodil, 2011)
If you’d only been paying attention to St. Vincent’s albums, “Krokodil” must’ve been a slap in the face. Even if you knew St. Vincent was a bit rawer in a live setting, or you’d seen the YouTube videos of Clark’s seething cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene,” or were generally aware of her fondness for Nirvana, the Pixies, and all things Steve Albini, you probably still wouldn’t be expecting a St. Vincent original quite so acerbic. Krokodil is Russian for “crocodile,” but it’s also the street name there for home-made desomorphine, a very powerful drug with heroin-like effect that garnered its nickname for the fact that those who abused it eventually took on a scaly appearance as Krokodil starts to make their flesh literally rot and decompose. I have no idea if Clark was following any of this in the news in 2011 and then decided to name her 2012 single in reference to it, but even as Krokodil is more amphetamine than opiate, the song is, like the drug, a highly corrosive entity. It’s acid manifested into music, distortion liberally coated onto voice and guitar alike, a punk burst laid down on an industrial clatter of a drumbeat. The most vicious Clark has ever allowed herself to be on record, it marks a moment where the darker bits constantly haunting the edges of St. Vincent’s music finally overtake it, burning away her music’s beauty, eating away at it till it’s all bare bones and violent core. “Krokodil” was released as a Record Store Day single with a b-side, “Grot,” that mashed up an angelic backing choir of Annie Clark’s with a monolithic bit of sludge. I wouldn’t mind St. Vincent going further down the Strange Mercy path, but it’ll be just as fascinating and exciting if this heavier side is what Clark chooses to explore next.
9. “Actor Out Of Work” (Actor, 2009)
Much of Actor is layered with ornamental baroque-pop arrangements that often maintain a quiet restraint, which makes sense given that many of these songs were initially composed on GarageBand so Clark didn’t disturb her neighbors. Within that context, “Actor Out Of Work” is a scuzzy detour of a pseudo-title track, buzzing guitars and a rigid but pounding rhythm like an army marching band breaking out into Michael Stipe dance moves. “You’re a supplement, you’re a salve/ You’re a bandage, pull it off,” Clark sings in that unearthly coo of hers, before continuing through a whole string of similarly merciless takedowns for a crippling two minutes. “You’re an actor out of work”, “You’re an extra lost in the scene” — you pretend for a living, and you’re not even good at it. All the bile isn’t just directed outwards, though, with Clark ending the song “I think I love you/ I think I’m mad,” then twisting her guitar into one final outburst, lashing out at herself as much as anyone else. There’s a way to read the song as a straight-up broken relationship tale, but taken in consideration with the rest of St. Vincent’s work, it also seems like a furious meditation on performative behavior and artificiality, and a self-interrogation of why her music comes back around to these themes again and again.
8. “The Apocalypse Song” (Marry Me, 2007)
In hindsight, a lot of Marry Me might seem like a bit of a feint. Primarily built up of occasionally whimsical art-pop with stray jazz elements scattered around and cheekily named for a recurring Arrested Development joke, the only real hints of Annie Clark’s dark side were the brooding “Your Lips Are Red” and the doomsday waltz of “Paris Is Burning.” Somewhere in between is “The Apocalypse Song,” still one of the most beautiful St. Vincent songs but one that’s also, you know, named for the end of the world and in which someone’s “devotion has the look of a lunatic’s gaze.” Out of the songs people talk about from St. Vincent’s debut, it feels like “The Apocalypse Song” might remain a bit underrated. Where there were moments on Marry Me and Actor where the songs’ structures got a bit too convoluted for their own good, “The Apocalypse Song” is relatively straightforward, but remarkably crafted. The string orchestration lends color rather than chamber-pop note overload, and for a song that’s not really guitar-based, the alterations in Clark’s playing subtly drive the shifting moods of the song. Her guitar first enters in the second half of the first verse, a groove snaking around the single-note bass throbs and 4/4 bass drum pulse, all calmly building towards the abrupt run that defiantly announces itself in place of a bridge. That run can be heard again in the chorus, but by then an acoustic is working with the strings to give the whole thing this kind of floating sensation. “The Apocalypse Song” isn’t a happy one, but that chorus becomes a solace, a place to hide as things are crumbling down.
7. “Laughing With A Mouthful Of Blood” (Actor, 2009)
After being on the road in support of Marry Me, Clark needed to decompress a bit. She apparently went back through and watched a lot of movies, including many children’s movies she remembered from her own upbringing. Actor was reportedly inspired by this experience, with many of its songs imagined as music with which Clark would soundtrack these movies. “Laughing With A Mouthful of Blood” is an encapsulation of all that. Its central line — “All of my old friends aren’t so friendly/ All of my old haunts are now all haunting me” — deals with both the past manifesting in unexpected and unwelcome ways as well as the unfamiliarity of returning to a familiar place after a long time. It’s easy to imagine part of this could be inspired by the wear of being on the road, finally returning home, and struggling to re-assimilate to daily routine (“I’d trade in my plot of land for a plane to anywhere”). But it feels a bit more extreme than that, ghosts bubbling up around the edges of the song — the old friends and haunts, maybe the memories associated with revisiting a bunch of childhood movies, the questions echoing in from the distance at the end of each verse stanza. Those questions are destabilizing, creating a paranoid atmosphere with lines about the future watching her or standing at the bottom of “a swimming pool with all the water out of it.” “Laughing With A Mouthful of Blood” is a classic example of that tension in St. Vincent’s music: it’s catchy and pretty musically, but there’s a whole host of things haunting it.
6. “Dilettante” (Strange Mercy, 2011)
For a second, it was a toss-up on whether this or “Year Of The Tiger” would get this slot. The latter is her best closing track, and seemed to sum up the personal themes of Strange Mercy while also being very in touch with the political and social atmosphere between the times Clark recorded Actor and then its follow-up. Ultimately, it had to go to “Dilettante.” When Strange Mercy came out, a lot of people talked about how it was St. Vincent’s most guitar-centric album, which it is, but not in a way that you’d expect. Many of the guitars — and many of the most distinct riffs or melodies on the album — are warped with effects, made to sound not like six strings and a wooden neck but entirely foreign sounds. Most of the sounds have a synthetic plasticity about them, but with fuzzy distortion serrating the edges; elsewhere, Clark’s guitar is processed to the point of achieving a spacey rubberiness, a word she and producer John Congleton apparently used themselves in the studio. “Dilettante” is one of the best examples. It strides along for three minutes, with purpose but in no rush, with slabs of distorted chords dropping down like air strikes. It’s a great song on an album packed with many of them, but the key reason it’s on this list is those last fifty seconds. After not varying its structure hardly at all, the song abruptly shifts into a coda that isn’t just one of the most gorgeous sections of music St. Vincent has recorded, but also of any that I’ve heard in the last few years. I was living in Shanghai when Strange Mercy came out, and few sounds could capture the almost out-of-body experience of walking its streets late at night; Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma was one, many parts of Strange Mercy, and particularly these fifty seconds, were another. Over a bed of synth drones, Clark gives a heavily processed solo, one of those perfect pieces of music that is either serene or deeply sad. In a way it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with the rest of “Dilettante” besides it being so dramatic in relation to the first part of the song. That’s fine, it stands alone as the best passage on Strange Mercy.
5. “Just The Same But Brand New” (Actor, 2009)
“And I do my best impression of weightlessness, now too,” Clark sings about two minutes into “Just The Same But Brand New.” It’s a good mission statement for the song, which despite coming towards the end of Actor, prefigures the vaporous qualities that would dominate Strange Mercy. There are parts of “Just The Same But Brand New” where it’s difficult to discern what exactly is making sound; there are the obvious tangibilities of a drum tethering the whole thing, but most of the song is built on ambience, some mixture of synths and guitars occasionally punctured by the flare-up of some other beautiful sound in the distance. The way all its composite elements glisten suggests something celestial, that this particular weightlessness is of the psychedelic, floating through air quality. But every sound appears then drifts off, rises then falls, approximating a tide lapping at the shore or the feeling of being borne out to sea on waves. That might set this up to be another of those St. Vincent songs that lures you in, offering you a poisoned apple cloaked in caramel — write a sweet-sounding song, make it about drifting out into nothingness. With the repetition of the line “I’m just the same/ but brand new,” though, the song seems to be getting at something else, especially with the final delivery of this line followed by the cathartic entry of a full drum pattern amongst the song’s currents. It’s the simplest of changes, and yet it’s so striking against the other facets of the song that it remains one of the strongest releases Clark has yet to allow in her studio work. There’s part of me that’s always wished Actor ended there, definitively, instead of tagging “The Sequel” on after it.
4. “Cheerleader” (Strange Mercy, 2011)
The video for “Cheerleader” — the second released from Strange Mercy, after “Cruel” — features a giant Annie Clark in an art gallery, tethered and beginning to crumble as visitors look at her. Combined with the refrain of “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more,” it’s easy to read the whole thing as a reaction to the way people write about St. Vincent with regards to her gender — the whole, “a pretty woman who can rock!” thing I talked about above. Maybe that is one layer of it, the “image” of St. Vincent breaking down under the scrutiny of people expecting a certain definition, but out of an album strewn with personal confessions, “Cheerleader” feels like one of the most inwardly-directed, rather than a reckoning with the outside world or music press or whatever. In her own life, Clark was in a jazz band, not a cheerleading squad, but the song nevertheless sounds like the process of her deconstructing herself. “I’ve had good times/ With some bad guys/ I’ve told whole lies/ With a half smile,” she begins, before later saying “I’ve played dumb/ When I knew better.” It all sounds kind of fragile in the verses, the instrumentation muted until the big distorted throb of the chorus, a swell suitable for that litany of “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” There is one other way the song can feel like it’s dealing with something outside Clark: the lines “I’ve seen America/ With no clothes on,” in the last verse. In that way, “Cheerleader” is of a piece with “Year Of The Tiger.” Partially tearing open personal issues, but mingling them with the climate in which Strange Mercy was written.
3. “Surgeon” (Strange Mercy, 2011)
The chorus of “Surgeon” comes from a line Clark found in Marilyn Monroe’s journals: “Best, finest surgeon, Lee Strasberg, come cut me open.” Removing Strasberg’s name, Clark had the pivotal line of her song, but also one that sums up a lot of Strange Mercy. It continues her interest in acting (parts of Actor, and its filmic source material) and in performance in general, perhaps taking the cue of an acting instructor like Strasberg and wanting to peel through layers like in “Cheerleader.” “Surgeon” also deals pretty specifically with the situational depression Clark experienced in 2010, starting with the line “I spent the summer on my back.” Clark stated she wanted the song to sound like “someone was kind of in a Benzedrine and white wine coma.” Much of “Surgeon” achieves that feeling, a gauzy meshwork of synthesizer and effects-laden guitar, nestling in that coma, or in the layers, before the surgeon’s done any work. St. Vincent winds up playing surgeon to herself, the proggy guitar outro all high-pitched lacerations through the hazy softness of all that preceded it. It takes an intentionally detached song and lights it up at the end, fraying it not so much from the edges but working out from a hole in the center, encapsulating the entire experience of Strange Mercy.
2. “Marrow” (Actor, 2009)
I’m dying to know which childhood movie wound up inspiring “Marrow.” Its feathery intro actually makes it sound like, for a moment, it could be from a Disney movie. Then it proceeds to contort itself into all sorts of disturbing shapes. Like some of the other songs on this list, “Marrow” has lyrics that allude to layers and to digging into what’s beneath them, its verses a creepy re-contextualization of teaching a kid anatomy. “Muscle connects to the bone/ And the bone to the ire and the marrow/ I wish I had a gentle mind/ And a spine made up of iron/ Mouth connects to the teeth/ And teeth to the loves and curses,” Clark sings in a silky near-whisper over a spectral bed of ambience, the slightest bit of distortion gurgling up to hint at what’s on its way. In the second verse she extends it out, finishing explaining what’s connected to what with a conclusion of “So I pretend there aren’t ten strings tied to all ten of my fingers.” That line sets up the choruses perfectly, where frenetic, heavily distorted grooves mimic the image of a marionette jerking in revolt as Clark sings “H-E-L-P/ Help me/ Help me.” The entire thing is a manic experience, unsettling but calm verses rupturing into the freak-out choruses and a noisy anti-solo. At first “Marrow” is the song where you can’t possibly picture what sort of kids’ movie Clark was watching, then you realize it captures just how weird some of those old fairytale movies are, then amps it up a few levels, like someone having a particularly bad trip while watching the Seven Dwarves run around.
1. “Strange Mercy” (Strange Mercy, 2011)
Despite being the title track from her best album, “Strange Mercy” isn’t necessarily the “definitive” St. Vincent song (I think we’ve yet to hear that), but it is definitely one of the best songs she has yet to record. The song’s a more or less average length of four and a half minutes, but it feels a lot longer; not because it drags on in any way, but because it’s the kind of song that feels like a world unto itself. I made comments above about how “Cheerleader” and “Surgeon” are representative of the whole of Strange Mercy, but if I were to single out a moment that epitomizes the new sound of that album and strikes me as one of the more interesting sonic contrasts I’d want to see St. Vincent continue to explore, it’s the way the clean-toned guitar of the verses give way to that totally alien-sounding synth (either that or processed-out-of-existence guitar) line in lieu of a chorus. It sounds incredible on headphones, and for an artist with a catalog already full of interesting textures and arrangements, it’s still one of the most singular. It’s also a trademark St. Vincent moment where the exact emotion it’s supposed to convey isn’t so simple to discern. There’s almost a reverie about it, which is only briefly disrupted by the embittered middle section with Clark singing “If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up/ No I don’t know what,” over more deliberate guitar slashes. I always expect her to say “fucked you up” the second time around, which apparently she sometimes does live, and I’d be curious to hear that intensified version. As it stands, “Strange Mercy” is a beautiful glassy surface, with all the demons of St. Vincent’s music churning underneath.