Essay

The Prophetess of Zeroes And Ones: St. Vincent Goes Digital Mystic On St. Vincent

Ryan Leas | February 25, 2014 - 10:18 am

The origin story of St. Vincent’s new self-titled turn has, at this point, been repeated again and again, appearing in just about every interview Annie Clark has given in the lead-up to the album’s release. But it makes sense, and we should start there, too. During a visit to a close friend’s ranch deep in west Texas, Clark went for a walk alone and, moved by the quiet and isolation she felt in comparison to her typical existence at home in Manhattan’s East Village, decided to take off all her clothes. Hopes of communing with nature went awry when she determined that a sound she’d first mistook for the wind was in fact a rattlesnake nearby, at which point she ran like hell until she made it back to her friend’s house, where she promptly took a shot of tequila.

This is the story of St. Vincent’s opening track, appropriately entitled “Rattlesnake,” a song Clark claims is “not a metaphor at all.” Though she may emphasize the song is a straightforward re-telling of her actual experience, placed at the beginning of the album and interviews alike the tale cannot help but take on larger meaning. “Am I the only one in the only world?” she asks repeatedly, and the question echoes out across the entirety of St. Vincent, registering all at once the wonder of (as a city person) finding the purity of a true place of solitude in the wild, but also the attendant fear and danger when a romantic experience with the natural world turns life-threatening in a moment. This a core tension with St. Vincent’s new record: the idea of having bits of your soul pulled into different worlds and, once there, not knowing how to work within them entirely.

It might seem weird to be using the term “origin story” four albums deep into St. Vincent’s solo career (or five, if you count her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant). So, maybe consider it an apotheosis, instead. Over the course of her last three albums, there have been two parallel paths for Annie Clark and her St. Vincent project. Throughout her career, Clark has continuously teased out a conflict between humanity and artificiality. The emotions in her songs and the demure affability she displayed in interviews were confined within strictures of tightly controlled, zig-zaggy arrangements on her earlier efforts. This notion, as applied to her first two records Marry Me and Actor, seems almost quaint now. The sorta-whimsical art-pop of Marry Me yielded the more baroque version of Actor. With that sophomore release, Clark was more willing to let the darker elements of human nature bubble up in swaths of fuzzy guitar that threatened to choke out the woodwinds and string arrangements in their revery. But things started to really switch over with Strange Mercy, when Clark’s music took on a greater degree of synthetic beauty and the idea of St. Vincent continued to grow almost separate from her. Readily known and introduced as Annie Clark in interviews, St. Vincent isn’t the same thing as, say, something like Alice Cooper, where the performer and performed character become one public entity. Rather, its steadily grown from a solo moniker to a full-fledged other self for Clark, a tool that allows her the room to act out her artistic ideas, as well as becoming increasingly representative of those ideas itself.

Where the cover of Marry Me was simply Clark staring back at you, by the time you get to the new St. Vincent it doesn’t register as Clark on the cover any longer, but an extreme version of what we’ve come to see as St. Vincent. As Clark continues to push harder on that artificial/human binary, taking her music further down the path of the former while becoming more comfortable with exploring the latter, she has also pushed the idea of St. Vincent into more severe territory. The move of releasing this new record as a self-titled outing seems a conscious decision. What we’re getting with this new record — musically, thematically, all around — is at once the point St. Vincent has been building to all along, as well as the realization of a more heightened version of that point than we may have previously imagined.

This wasn’t necessarily evident with the first bit of music we heard from the album (“Birth In Reverse”) but it was clear enough as the album’s visuals trickled out. There on the cover is St. Vincent, but not in a form we recognize. Gone is that old, other contrast of her career — the fact that, as a pretty brunette but also the best and most interesting indie-rock guitarist to emerge in the last ten years, she put her male counterparts to shame in a field stereotypically and historically dominated by men. Those concerns seem irrelevant to the new St. Vincent: hair bleached out into colorlessness, severe makeup, decked out in a retro sci-fi dress on a retro sci-fi throne. It felt like we’d watched the process of St. Vincent becoming herself and we’d arrived at the end point, which turned out to be St. Vincent striding way ahead of us. It’s the origin story, the apotheosis, the becoming, the self-titled christening. This, on some level, felt like the version of St. Vincent that was always supposed to be: not one that came down to earth, but one that seemed ever less of our world than ever before.

It’s a look Clark described as “near-future cult leader,” for which she took cues from the Memphis design movement as well as the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowsky film The Holy Mountain. In an interview with Salon, Clark commented on the process of arriving at her new look: “I just wanted to play with my visual identity more than I had before, because when I look at the artists who I think are really fascinating, and often there’s been a different archetype per record.” She describes the process of arriving at that drained hair color as one of happenstance. She traded in her trademark brown for blonde on a whim, but it mutated through a bunch of failed colors — which, she alludes, was partially inspired by how David Bowie would try to go bleach-blonde and wind up orange — before she wound up in a grey that’s more about the absence of color than it is of any specific tone itself.

The negation is the progression. St. Vincent’s new appearance comes off as a fitting embodiment of the new ideas and sounds populating her music, as well as a the conclusion in a seemingly willful process of undoing her old image. To what end, I guess, you could ask. The new form St. Vincent presents on St. Vincent is as synthetic visually as the music itself has become. Across St. Vincent, the music extends the sounds of Strange Mercy — everything is more compressed, robotic, rubbery. On the surface, it could merely seem that, finally, the artificiality of St. Vincent has consumed the humanity.

But within the kinetically 2-D rhythms and glassy synth surfaces of St. Vincent are human voices — disembodied, but still human — crying out in anxiety about making sense of the world surrounding them. It makes sense that Clark was so taken with Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, an album that turned to more synthetic sounds in an effort to observe the intersections of the technological and the organic in our daily lives. St. Vincent is similarly concerned with how those boundaries shift, and what it means for us as individuals.

***

It begins there in “Rattlesnake” — a walk enamored with the real world turns into a destabilizing occurrence. “Am I the only one in the only world?” can read as a sense of peace; out there in the wilderness, you have a moment to know and to reckon with yourself. But there’s the creeping anxiety of it, too — the unknowableness of the natural world, the disconnection and isolation of being out there with no human accompaniment or cell reception alike. The “only world” part of the line is crucial. We’re used to straddling our digital and physical lives, shifting between them at will throughout our day. What happens when you’re temporarily removed from that? You get a sense of peace that’s quickly subsumed by a haunting vacuity. When you’re accustomed to noise all the time, its absence can become the more horrifying thing. Then it’s just yourself and the world around you, a natural setting made nerve-wracking for how it — so quickly — has reached a point of no longer feeling natural.

The interplay between bodies, the real world, and the abstracted world of the web continues in hints dropped all over St. Vincent. “We’re all sons of someones,” Clark sings on “Prince Johnny” amongst repeated evocations of “Saw you pray to all to make you a real boy.” There’s a way to read “Prince Johnny” as a short character study and these as poetic turns of condemnation directed towards its namesake delusional party boy. These lines have the same anxiety as those in “Rattlesnake,” though, questions about being able to figure out what experiences constitute as real and authentic, and what those words even mean anymore. “I Prefer Your Love” is the most beautiful song Clark has yet written, but it’s beautiful in an unbroken, glassy surface kind of way — unerring in its aesthetic appeal in the same way as the shimmeringly clean surfaces of utopian landscapes like, say, the one most recently seen in Spike Jonze’s Her. (For which, perhaps not coincidentally, Arcade Fire recorded the score while they were at work on Reflektor.) At the same time, being a tribute to her mother after she recently recovered from a serious illness, it has to be one of her most human songs.

Fittingly enough for the contrasts that have always run through her career and artistic persona, there’s a constant push and pull between how the new specifics of this current iteration of St. Vincent are portrayed by Clark to be matter-of-fact, natural occurrences, and how they collectively scan as much larger symbols. The genesis of “Huey Newton” wasn’t necessarily natural, but it was all bodily: while on tour in Europe, Clark took an Ambien to aid with her jetlag, but when she didn’t fall asleep she instead had a hallucinatory experience in which she met Huey Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers. After that, the writing process unfolded spontaneously, with Clark saying she wrote the lyrics “in probably five minutes, in a very feverish sort of state,” and describing them as “stream-of-consciousness.”

This is where the lines get blurred between the human and technological, and the digital era anxieties of St. Vincent get explicit. For Clark, stream-of-consciousness no longer translates as only a rush of thoughts that come unbidden, from the most organic and ineffable corners of your mind. Rather, in the rest of that quote she elaborates, comparing that stream-of-consciousness style to falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes. “You know when you’re online and you go, ‘I really need to look up the Irish potato famine,'” she told NPR. “And then, next thing you know, you make a pit stop at the Black Plague. And then you’re like, ‘Oh wait, what is Kate Middleton wearing?’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh! Huey Newton.’ It was sort of meant to feel like that.” Fittingly, the only time Newton’s name actually appears in the lyrics is in a line that goes “pleasure dot loathing dot huey dot newton.” His name is just decontextualized words, digital markers mixed up in the murk of other disassociated digital markers. It recedes into the floatiness of the song’s verse.

Then the whole thing ruptures open into a condensed roar of distortion, and Clark’s voice turns from a reserved lilt to a distant, compressed rage proclaiming “Entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones you know, you know/ With fatherless features, you motherless creatures, you know.” The first half of that line is key to the relationships between technology and people that get sketched out on St. Vincent. In those meandering hours of falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes, you stumble on all sorts of things kept in that “shrine of zeroes and ones,” all the names and details that get preserved and given their proper place out in the digital expanse. But the line starts with the word “entombed” and it’s clear, at least in this moment, that Clark has some skepticism about our relationship to the practice of guaranteeing factual immortality through profiles and online encyclopedias. “Pleasure dot loathing dot huey dot newton” is just another collection of words and qualities frozen out there in the ether, entombed less in history books than amongst all the other carefully organized but un-navigable elements of our past. Of course those of us living now are entombed, too — functioning people already preserved out there with the internet’s infinite offerings of factual detritus.

In a recent guest article for The Guardian, Clark offered some direct insights on how social media has exacerbated our already performative nature as people. “We perform our identities in the analogue and digital realm. Every tweet or T-shirt is a signifier that consciously or subconsciously communicates something about us to others.” She went on to describe her childhood fascination with a three-sided mirror in her parents’ home. “I remember looking into one side of the mirror and seeing the reflection go on forever. I thought, if only I could tilt my head at just the perfect angle I’d actually be able to see ‘infinity.’ Hello self! Here are your many echoes! The further they get from the source, the smaller and less substantial they become.” That last part is the most telling. St. Vincent, particularly in her current form, may be one other self Clark has built up, one liberating echo, but it’s the rest that could be unnerving. As a celebrity and an artist, it’s even more severe for her than for the rest of us with multiple profiles spread across a handful of apps and websites. You’re constantly transmitting little bits of yourself that, by the sheer strength of numbers, wind up diluting the whole at the center. It’s your own miniscule contributions to all that detritus.

The song on St. Vincent that most openly addresses such concerns is “Digital Witness,” which deals with many of the same ideas as Clark’s Guardian editorial. Much like her compatriots in the Arcade Fire, Clark examines the changing notions of privacy and selfhood in the digital era. “Digital witnesses/What’s the point of even sleeping/If I can’t show it/If you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” the chorus goes, interrogating our newfound need to overshare everything, our willful negation of our own privacy. The final refrain tacks on two concluding thoughts — “So I stopped sleeping /Yeah I stopped sleeping/Won’t somebody sell me back to me?” — that get at the loss of individual autonomy that is the inherent flipside of our online connectivity. “I want all of your mind,” Clark says throughout the song, as much a demand as a defensive maneuver against the sense that someone wants all her mind, too, in that never-ending social media shell game of attention-seeking gestures.

You’ll notice I’ve mainly been speaking of the symbols and words — always detritus, in their own fashion, anyway I suppose — of St. Vincent. What’s notable is that as Clark conveys all these anxieties about the modern world, her sound has progressed several steps further past the crystalline haze of Strange Mercy’s defining moments. Everything here sounds like mutated plastic. As much as her music could seem at odds with the technology of our era, the sounds themselves are born of it. Guitars continue to be bent so far in random directions as to cease sounding anything like themselves. In that NPR interview, Clark explained her intentions with St. Vincent: “It’s all organic sounds; it’s all people playing in a room for the most part, especially the rhythm section. But the sounds get processed to the point where they sound inorganic, so you get kind of the best of both worlds: You get the feel of a human, but the sound of a machine.” Sonically, St. Vincent marks the moment where Clark blows up her old binary altogether, collapsing the artificial and the human together.

This is the nuance of St. Vincent, the wrinkle to the anxieties that stops the record from devolving into technophobia. Because running alongside and counter to the lyrical focus on questions of selfhood in a technological era is the symbolic transformation we started with. Clark has never had as specific a vision of what St. Vincent could be, visually and thematically. This record isn’t just the sound of being at odds with technology, but more so of that messy intersection we all live in. At the same time that digital culture is eroding our old sense of individuality and action, it provides the tools to rebuild those concepts in new definitions. St. Vincent is the sound of simultaneous dissolution and construction. It’s at once the most cohesive statement of identity St. Vincent has put forth as an artist, and one totally reliant on fragmentation. Which is how we’re all living, now — we build up our selves by putting out little divisions, letting loose little signifiers that reference back but are essentially strands drifting out into the digital landscape. We’re all conduits, pieces of ourselves and others traveling freely through.

There’s something transcendent in accepting that, and perhaps the counter-narrative of St. Vincent lies on that end of the spectrum. Ironically, “Digital Witness,” with its centrally located placement on the album, becomes the keystone here as well. The word “witness” has its face value usage in the context of the song — we need to Instagram and tweet and Facebook everything, because if we don’t have witnesses to our actions, they didn’t actually happen. But if you think about the word in its religious context, it can seem something greater: the idea that there is something spiritual in the interactions we have in the online sphere. After all, digital and spiritual activities alike take place beyond our bodies.

“Yeah, I been born twice” Clark sings towards the end of St. Vincent’s penultimate track, “Every Tear Disappears.” She’s arrived as a new St. Vincent than the one we knew, having been reborn as the accumulation of everything St. Vincent was before. In her way, St. Vincent has always been about factual detritus. The Disney movies that inspired Actor. The artistic touchstones of St. Vincent’s cover and new aesthetic. That her debut album’s title was a winking reference to a recurring joke in Arrested Development. That the opaque moniker she assumed as her artist’s name was inspired by the New York hospital where Dylan Thomas died in 1953, but also has more ancient references. Investigating the tapestry that makes up St. Vincent is exactly like falling down one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes that “Huey Newton” is meant to represent. And once you do, you’ll find all these little snippets and reflections of Annie Clark and St. Vincent alike, rippling as if down that infinity of mirrors within mirrors.

So perhaps this is the new core tension of St. Vincent’s music. Less so a fixation on the contrast between what’s real and fake, St. Vincent conveys a mutual horror and wonder at the inescapability that these worlds are now intertwined. The record is burbling and anxious and, as ever, intentionally distant. It’s also the realization of St. Vincent becoming herself, much in the way we all need to in the digital era. There’s a spiritual reckoning happening there, a maybe nascent, maybe subliminal need to believe that the landscape of the internet can be made legible and manipulated in the same way as any of the other abstract rules that have governed our society in the past. Once you understand the code, you can move within it and bend it to your will. Recreate yourself. Fragment yourself, if that’s what you want; maybe the other side of dilution is transcendence, too. After all, if you bunch them close enough together, zeroes and ones can look like anything. They can look like life.

St. Vincent is out 2/25 via Loma Vista.

Tags: St. Vincent
33