The same year that Britney Spears shaved her head, Annie Clark released her debut album, Marry Me, under the moniker St. Vincent. Both events, albeit articulated in different ways, were influenced by two things that go hand in hand until they don’t: marriage and divorce. Spears suffered a mental break, had an incident with an umbrella, and released one of her best albums, Blackout, all within the span of nine months. Sparking this chain of events was the dissolution of her marriage to Kevin Federline. That same year, Whitney Houston divorced Bobby Brown, Laurie Lennard divorced Larry David, Reese Witherspoon divorced Ryan Phillipe… While these stars were dealing with the saddest aspects of having tied the knot, Clark was writing about those very themes.
American icons of the early aughts fell from grace as their marriages crumbled, exposing to the world that they were indeed human, suffering losses on a grand scale backlit by paparazzi flashbulbs. Celebrity relationships are a testament to why we wouldn’t have to romanticize the American wedding if the divorce rate weren’t almost 50%. No one would want to fall in love if there was only the possibility of its costly demise. Cue the cake tasting, dress shopping, and proposal at the top of the Empire State Building. Clark’s debut album, Marry Me — which turns 10 today — narrates the many shades of thwarting love: the shades that lie outside of the bookends of marriage and divorce, which usually aren’t captured on TMZ.
“I think it’s entirely possible to be in a romantic relationship but also be absent and…by all sort of tangible accounts you’re there, you’re in a relationship, it’s very possible to be out wandering in your mind, and I think it’s sort of a…I think we’ve all seen a lot of marriages, I think, in our lives.” Clark was talking about the subtext for Marry Me’s title track. Most of us know what it’s like to lose ourselves. Whether it’s by accident when reading Google Maps incorrectly or subconsciously getting lost in a daydream while taking the subway to work, our sense of reality can slip away from us in an instant. It usually comes back before we realize we’ve lost it. It can occur seamlessly: getting washed up in a relationship only to find yourself hanging onto a ledge crumbling from its poor infrastructure. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea of something and believe that you’re completely present.
“It was sort of a comment also on an American belief,” Clark continued. “These symbols that are upheld throughout culture tend to be really, really empty in themselves…these things that are really binding that are actually real. It was a comment on all symbols of stability, which is also a comment on never really questioning commitment.”
Right from the beginning of Marry Me’s proposal, she’s telling her lover — and more importantly, the listener — that she will not be made into something different by someone else, especially if that someone is for eternity. “Now, Now” lists various metaphors and clichés that Clark is not. The song develops into a Beatlesque eruption with a choir chanting, “You don’t mean that, say you’re sorry.” It’s almost immature, mimicking the childish notions of wife and husband that spouses are expected to fulfill, tattling on each other when one fucks up. Already Clark is letting us know that Marry Me will not be the romanticized notion of “till death do us part.”
Marry Me’s cover is a head-on portrait of the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. She wears a gray tunic shirt that is barely contrasted against a darker-shaded background. Her face is peaked and pale like the color of Carrara marble. Her hair is a dark, curly, unkempt mess. Her irises are wide and green, drowning in the bleached white of her eyes. She is corporeal mundanity — almost completely blank. Yet her eyebrows are arched, making her facial expression show minor shock. It’s an appropriate expression for the exclamation her debut album title is asking of us. But Annie, we’ve only just met. Like being trapped in an elevator for hours with a stranger, or stranded on a remote island with the new in-laws, by the end of it, we’ll all be too close for comfort and dumbfounded at how naive we were. The slight look of shock, her unexpecting stillness, is what makes her all the more curious, especially taking on the name St. Vincent — a name that honors several people canonized for their martyrdom.
The first few songs on Marry Me are anthemic. They are explosive. From the fingerpicking of harmonic hotspots for the opening of “Now Now,” to the cacophonic jagged guitar runs and eerie choral multi-tracking, to the triumphant tone of Clark making trumpet sounds à capella on “Jesus Saves I Spend” and the wrenching of strings reminiscent of Steve Reich on “Your Lips Are Red” with the completely derailing improvisation of piano keys, Clark is completely out of control. But she’s not. She keeps us on edge just enough to forget that there are rules of entropy. She then reels us back in with soothing violins and her operatic voice.
“Marry me John, marry me John, I’ll be so good to you,” she coos on the title track. I believe her. Finally, Clark has taken a left turn onto a steadier path from the preceding songs. “You won’t realize I’m gone.” Well, maybe not. John may be the one she’s proposing to, but what she’s investing in is the idea of marital stability. Whatever he thinks isn’t of importance. What matters is Clark’s eerie dependency. “[You’re] like a socket that I can plug into at will.” The marriage, not necessarily John, is giving her life. Clark realizes this is not the American fantasy. She’s toying with us. She’s taking jabs at the institution that supposedly makes love everlasting. It turns from a heartwarming ballad to flipping the bird to wedding rings on the opposite hand. After 10 listens, its narrative is gutting. The charming trumpets and twinkling percussion make it all the more unsettling.
Clark’s ongoing experimentation with a jubilee of sounds is apparent on her debut. Here, her vocals transform from operatic to cartoonish. Guitar lines have a vicious bite like a wild dog with rabies. There’s use of metaphors, wordplay, and historical narrative. “Paris Is Burning” is an insidious and unnerving song that ends in a carnivalesque waltz. Further down the rabbit hole we go until Clark sets us down gently on a cloud for the tender “All My Stars Aligned.” “Landmines” feels like a mix of Bowie and Radiohead. It feels alien and isolated. Then there is a subtle break where revolutionary drums march with her now-muffled vocals. Whereas “Paris Is Burning” is a literal narrative of WWII, “Landmines” places Clark in a metaphorical war zone where her relationship causes her casualties, which seems more like self-sabotage. With her knack for lists, Clark rattles off numerous superstitious rituals for her love to stay. The album is violent and colorful, literally. It sounds like a rock opera. It feels like a rollercoaster. And this is all fitting, considering that Marry Me is about exploring different notions of love. Love is all these things at once; it’s ridiculous, and it is graceful.
Gracefully unnerving: That’s exactly what Marry Me is. Its purpose is to upset the common, the expected, the routine structures of life. “I think anything that you can’t poke fun at is a little too precious.” That was Clark’s response to an interviewer asking her if she was mocking faith on Marry Me. You also can’t convey a 3-D portrayal of love and its institutions if you can’t point out the faults and challenges of it. Clark realizes this. Not only does she poke at the societal roles of husband and wife, but also the God in whose house they were created. Murder ballad “Your Lips Are Red” is a major derailment on Marry Me, beginning with a misleading eerie jewelry box that builds into a hostile spectacle. Clark tugs at the darkest root of love, making a disturbingly beautiful thrasher film of a song. Guitars scream for help and strings wither with anxiety. Death-filled dance songs are filtered throughout the rest of Marry Me. Her tone has morphed from forthright to indifferent to murderous.
Clark plays with romantic allusions in sinister ways that take several sit-throughs of Marry Me to even grasp. “Many people want to make love, make friends, make peace with death” is a repeated line on “Marry Me” that could possibly be assuming that marriage is a way for us to cope with dying. “Till death do us part” is the ubiquitous line synonymous with marriage. It might be that love must be sacrosanct on Earth, ’cause who the hell knows what comes after? But then again, she jokes about Shakespeare’s infamous couple that killed themselves because they couldn’t live without each other. “Juliet, how you been? You look like death like you sure could use a rest from this place,” cracks Clark with airy vocals on “Human Racing.” She emphasizes death, she’s in on her own joke and waits for us to catch the sinister pun. Even the fictional dead cannot escape Clark’s acicular intellect and songwriting.
St. Vincent is an otherworldly project that documents, mocks, and admires conventional elements of humanity — specifically the untamable, clichéd, and still misunderstood element of love. Prior to Marry Me, she worked with both the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. On this album, she is credited with vocals, guitars, bass, piano, organ, Moog synthesizers, melodica, xylophone, vibraphone, dulcimer, drum programming, percussion, and finally, the triangle. That résumé alone is a testament to the many superpowers Clark contains.
Marry Me is probably not what most people think of when they think of Annie Clark. It might be that time Kid Cudi sampled her. Or the times she was engaged to supermodel Cara Delevingne and then dated Kristen Stewart. Or even that time she did an album and choreographed tour with David Byrne. Or it might be her recent film debut, when she modeled for Marc Jacobs, or designed her own guitar that accommodates space for boobs. Regardless, Clark has grown from indie background musician to badass pop-culture staple. She keeps redefining herself with new sounds, new hair, and new commentary on whatever is existentially relevant. Marry Me made it obvious that she would have a prosperous career exposing listeners to new points of view and cunning soundscapes.