When revisiting the major albums of 2009, the year begins to look like an inflection point. A simultaneous culmination of a burgeoning scene while still only a prologue of the unforeseen dominance some of these artists would later achieve. Whether in revisiting the ’09 albums that hold up, crucial moments like the compilation Dark Was The Night, or albums that seemed to be instant classics in their time, you get a portrait of artists rising and establishing their scene, but in hindsight also glimpses of artists who had only just begun. Artists who would transcend those circumstances, go beyond being an indie luminary and become of the definitive names of their time. There are only a couple in that latter category. St. Vincent is one of them.
Ten years ago this Sunday, Annie Clark released her second album under the moniker. Actor was, in many ways, very much of its time and place, the late ‘00s stretch of baroque-pop Brooklyn indie. Clark excelled within that milieu, and the album solidified her as one of the emergent names at the tail end of last decade. And within its DNA, you can already see the blueprints for where St. Vincent would go. It’s a moment that both represents Clark’s talent crystallizing and still feels rooted in another era, prefiguring how far behind she would leave those origins.
Just under two years beforehand, St. Vincent had debuted with Marry Me. When Clark first started making a name for herself, people would mention how she cut her teeth touring with the Polyphonic Spree. They’d talk about her playing in Sufjan Stevens’ band. It is disorienting, foreign, to look back on those times and recall this is how people used to introduce St. Vincent’s backstory.
And in turn, the Annie Clark that appeared in those interviews, discussing the making of Actor, comes across as a totally different version of herself. The press, already growing fervent about this artist, dug into the album’s conception with her, and she often answered straightforwardly enough. Ten years later, she’s on the far side of an arc that begins here, removed and steely and inscrutable, trolling the press, almost directly throwing back all the things that were written about her in those Actor days, when people would go on and on about this “demure brunette guitar genius.”
Of course, even with the initial embrace of St. Vincent’s work, few could have predicted how her star would ascend and morph — likely herself included. As would be the case with many of these late ‘00s indie artists on the cusp of some kind of mainstream penetration, Actor first came from humbler circumstances. Before teaming with producer John Congleton, Clark worked on it in her New York apartment, recording into a computer, the gentle vocals partially a byproduct of noise complaints from neighbors.
The whole nature of the album was also rooted in being at home, trying to reset after a lengthy spate of touring. Clark began revisiting old movies, favorites from earlier in her life, and writing music along to them as they unfolded on mute. The ones most often-cited in Actor’s rollout were of a particular nature — childhood fairytales with just a bit of eeriness or something sinister lurking underneath. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs informed the orchestration and tonal shifts of opener “The Strangers,” while “Marrow” resulted from The Wizard Of Oz.
“I felt like I wanted to create something that was Technicolor, was visual as much as musical,” Clark told NPR at the time, speaking specifically about “Marrow.” “And also lyrically — this person wishing they had a spine made of iron — it’s sort of along the thematic lines of The Wizard Of Oz.”
From the unnerving placidity of Actor’s cover to its lush and bright instrumentation, you can still hear what Clark was setting out to achieve. Written to those old movies, Actor is burst after burst of primary colors. But that’s not to say it sounds, or ever sounded, like a happy or precious affair the way some of her peers’ work might have when tackling the same concept. That brightness suggested something sickly, something haunting festering just below the surface.
That, too, was by design. “I wanted to make something that had the whimsy and the sweet of something very pure, like the Disney films, but also something that was kind of bloody and gory and disgusting,” Clark told The New York Times. “I tried to combine those two things, both things that I love in equal parts, and see what happened.”
This is what made Actor seem special in its moment. By 2009, it wasn’t uncommon for the young generation of indie artists to be experimenting with chamber-pop affectations or with layers of strings and woodwinds. And while a lot of that material seems fussy all these years removed, Clark had somewhat insulated herself from the same criticisms. Actor shares a prettiness, an immaculate and composed veneer, with what was happening at the time. But it had a darkness growing, threatening to overtake it.
It was a juxtaposition Clark had toyed with previously, on Marry Me, where poppy indie confections like “Now Now” and “Jesus Saves, I Spend” were countered with freakouts like “Your Lips Are Red” and “Paris Is Burning.” And there were still songs on Actor — perhaps the ones that don’t loom as large, that feel more 2009 when you hear them today — that don’t represent the tension Clark was baking into the album overall. As memorable as “The Party” is, it feels like refuse from a less-complicated St. Vincent, one that would soon disappear entirely. (Ironically, as a counter-argument, you could see the feint of “New York” being MASSEDUCTION’s lead single working partially because it almost hearkened back to early St. Vincent, a misleading intro to an album that represented her biggest departure yet.)
Perhaps one reason Actor garnered Clark so much positive buzz was in how it improved upon Marry Me in every way — the songwriting sharpened and focused throughout, and that conflict of dark and light woven tighter together, so that you never knew when individual songs might rupture. “Black Rainbow” begins pillowy, then pulls you inexorably into the shadows its name suggests; “The Bed” swings jarringly from lullabies to strings that sound like dying birds falling from the sky. The whole thing begins with “The Strangers,” featuring a lilting melody in which Clark keeps promising to “Paint the black hole blacker” until distorted guitars raze the seeming calm that preceded.
The album’s success was in its cohesion, the way it kept these themes going to provide some kind of skewed, poisonous interpretation, an early example of Clark taking what surrounded her and bending and twisting it into her own funhouse vision of the world. This tendency set up a fruitful career, and here it also resulted in some songs that still rank amongst her best. “Actor Out Of Work,” the pseudo-title-track, is throbbing, caustic, and infectious — a gliding melody atop frothing distortion. Perhaps the album’s most gorgeous song is called, of all things, “Laughing With A Mouth Full Of Blood.” One of her more underrated compositions, “Just The Same But Brand New” is a striking dreamscape of semi-renewal at the album’s conclusion. “Marrow,” as clear-cut a St. Vincent classic as anything here, made the polarities the most severe, fluttering woodwinds and airy-but-foreboding verses and an off-kilter chorus of fear and guitars warped almost beyond recognition.
There was a specificity to what Clark was doing on Actor, but it also set up what would prove to be a career in contrasts. Back then, it was the tranquility vs. violence, the quiet and peaceful vs. eruptions of rage. This is what defined St. Vincent’s earlier work: She would build pristine architecture, then set fire to it. Later on, it would take different forms: earnestness and blood vs. artifice and manipulated images. In its way, Actor is the conclusion to the first era of St. Vincent, that indie singer-songwriter who used to play with Sufjan, at the same time as it’s the prologue for the journey that would unfold over the next 10 years and three albums. Anything that could loosely be described as twee or whimsical from those early records, anything that could signify Clark’s roots in a particular era of New York indie music, would soon be burned away entirely.
In that same 2009 New York Times interview, Clark explains the meaning behind the title Actor. “It’s about just the general sense of feeling like a fraud, because I think anyone who is creative or self-aware in any way, there’s like a humility to it, or I should say a humiliation to it,” she explained. “But there’s also a self-delusion … The self-delusion is the thing that makes you go, ‘Oh you know what, all the music I’ve ever loved in the world, I want to be a part of that — hey, listen to what I have to say, it’s really important, it’s going to matter.’”
On some level, Clark was talking about the very endeavor and anxiety of creation; that fraudulence, the fake it until you make it, proving to people you deserve to be there. But on some other level, you know her ideas were good. That they were better than a lot of other people’s. In that sense, her follow-up quote is more prescient: “You can’t apologize your way into people’s hearts. You have to go full force.” Soon after Actor, that fear of self-delusion, that trepidation, seemed to evaporate from the work of St. Vincent. The name and concept behind her sophomore album became less an existential musing and more of a key into her following chapters.
This idea of St. Vincent we saw on Marry Me and Actor is almost quaint, primitive despite its intricacy, in comparison to what came next: the pharmaceutical fog and synthetics of 2011’s Strange Mercy, leaning directly into a retro-futuristic space age queen aesthetic in the coronation of 2014’s self-titled, the dense entanglement of heartache and lust and vivid Pop Art on 2017’s MASSEDUCTION. As the years went on, Clark continued to modulate her identity and push her instrument into its outer limits. She had gone as far as she could within the original context of her career and sound, and instead took a thesis, not sonic cues, from Actor forward. There, it was the gore and whimsy against one another. Afterward, it was constant transformation, the entire project of St. Vincent becoming an exercise in different tensions musically and thematically, the entire persona of St. Vincent becoming a war in which what was performance and what was reality could often be questioned.
Consider the Annie Clark we now know. The one who had a high-profile relationship with Cara Delevingne. The one who worked with David Byrne, and the one who worked with Jack Antonoff. The one who has perfected a distance from the usual machinery of indie star interviews, trying to provoke reactions out of those who speak with her or producing videos mocking the whole enterprise. The one who performs with Dua Lipa at the Grammys. When was the last time you thought about the Polyphonic Spree at all, let alone could imagine it being listed as some kind of pivotal resume builder in Annie Clark’s career? That was still the case when Actor came out 10 years ago. Now, she’s eclipsed almost everything about where she came from. She has become an art-rock star capable of sliding between worlds, dancing towards pop to then turn and produce a Sleater-Kinney album.
Without the rest of the story, Actor might feel like more of a relic of last decade; you could imagine an alternate history in which Annie Clark continued on in a similar vein and was a respected if not visionary force. But after crafting the perfect realization of one version of herself on her sophomore album, she imploded it on her third. The forces fighting within Actor, those hints of stranger shapes and pathways, would drive her career forward. After the first implosion, there was another, and then another — each time, destruction of the old St. Vincent yielding some vibrant new creation. Actor lives on as an innovative indie album from an era littered with them, a lingering document of who St. Vincent was and a harbinger of who she would be. She had already changed here, and would do it again and again. This was just the beginning of Annie Clark proving herself the David Bowie for a new era of rock music, able to shed skin after skin, sliding into new ones repeatedly and with ease. It was the beginning of her remaking herself constantly — just like an actor.