Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: St. Vincent All Born Screaming

Total Pleasure/Virgin Music Group
Total Pleasure/Virgin Music Group

Annie Clark is course-correcting. She’s not pulling the classic rockstar move of readily disowning that last record people didn’t like so much and promising the new one is way better. Nevertheless, you can hear that sentiment at work on All Born Screaming, her seventh album under the St. Vincent moniker. After a career of transformations yielded a rare misstep in 2021’s Daddy’s Home, the stakes of reinvention were different this time. All Born Screaming is not the sound of St. Vincent becoming yet another character, but the sound of Annie Clark rediscovering herself.

Daddy’s Home was arguably the first misfire of Clark’s career. Clark had long since become one of the most acclaimed artists of her generation, stacking up albums that zigged and zagged from one another while maintaining a high degree of quality control. She was also uniquely adept at sculpting the narrative of St. Vincent with each new iteration. Yet on Daddy’s Home, she went theoretically more personal — grappling with her father’s release from prison after a 10-year stint following involvement in a stock manipulation scheme — but cloaked everything in artifice that, for the first time, teetered into nostalgic cosplay rather than her own visionary lexicon. All Born Screaming arrives, if not with a stark dismissal of Daddy’s Home, then an implicit acknowledgment of the album’s flaws and divisiveness. Everything about All Born Screaming feels like a heel turn.

In the last couple months, Clark has been doing the requisite rollout press, but the approach is noticeably different. She spends a lot of time explaining that for years she was playing with ideas of persona, but All Born Screaming is the sound of what’s inside of her. “I needed to go deeper in finding my own sonic vocabulary,” she told Mojo back in February, during an early glimpse of the album. At the same time, she won’t explain the meaning of these songs, after its predecessor’s over-conceptualization suffocated the proceedings. Clark has given thematic broadstrokes but leaves the rest of the album up to fans’ interpretation: Here is a pure, bold presentation of St. Vincent, nearly 20 years in.

If Clark hadn’t already used the self-titled album move to cap off her ascension, she could’ve used it now for her reclamation. All Born Screaming is the first time Clark has decided to produce all on her own, which gave her the leeway to labor over these songs obsessively all alone, in her studio; she claims to have tracked certain vocal parts a hundred times. She still left the door open for collaboration along the way, inviting trusted pals like Cate Le Bon and producer/sideman extraordinaire Justin Meldal-Johnsen. Dave Grohl plays drums on two tracks. It all makes sense. The album begins to feel like Clark finding her way back home.

All Born Screaming is perhaps the first moment since Clark’s shape-shifting tendencies kicked off that you could say, simply, “It sounds like a St. Vincent album.” Many favored adjectives make their triumphant comeback: melted, caustic, cerebral. The album primarily feels like a fusion of the core/peak St. Vincent albums — Strange Mercy, St. Vincent, and Masseduction. And as those albums ran the gamut from silvery anesthesia to lurid pink latex, All Born Screaming gets down to elemental forms at the cross-section of those polarities. Clark has said the album is black and white and all the colors of fire. Stark, vivid, and probably most importantly — more human.

In its earliest moments, All Born Screaming is surprisingly slow-burn, a curtain rising on post-apocalyptic moments. (Clark herself deemed it “post-plague pop.”) “Hell Is Near” opens the album on a ghostly, eerie note, continued by “Reckless,” a whispery track that finally ignites into a sputtering beat and explosive synths. Then, the album fully bares its teeth with “Broken Man,” the lead single that garnered comparisons to Nine Inch Nails. In general, this sets the tone for the album. There are scathing, feral outbursts, yet less than the album’s initial previews might’ve suggested. Those moments are meted out carefully; much of All Born Screaming is really the sound of Clark wandering haunted passages looking for the exit.

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Where Daddy’s Home’s various genre exercises often skewed slapdash and scattered, she expertly toes the line here. Many songs feel simultaneously new and squarely in Clark’s wheelhouse, like the smoky alternate universe Bond theme of “Violent Times” or the heaving art- and arena-rock mashup of “Flea.” “Big Time Nothing” sounds like U2’s “Numb” done by INXS, its spoken-word mantra verses giving way to a squelching funk chorus. The sounds — often calamitous yet mechanistic percussion, snarling guitars, warped synths, Clark’s voice crystal and liquid above it all— are all quintessentially St. Vincent. Perhaps people are used to becoming skeptical after Clark’s press antics over the years, but she’s not misdirecting or over-selling with All Born Screaming when she talks about her “sonic vocabulary.” The album is the sound of someone returning to favored stylistic tropes with a renewed sense of mastery. It’s good to have her back.

Clark has positioned the album as one that catalogs dark experiences but is meant for release. “Sometimes I just want music to pummel me into absolution,” she said recently. “It’s not cute, it’s not winky, it’s not ironic.” The urgency Clark felt is clearly evident in the music, which is a pristine arrangement of frayed edges both emotional and musical. Pretense and schtick are burned away, until it’s just raw emotion in a clattering, transfixing array of noise.

Naturally, in 2024, there is still the long tail “we barely understand what we went through” aftershocks of the pandemic nobody really wants to talk about. Clark is writing from that place. She’s referenced loss, talked about heaven and hell. While she declines to specify how these things threaded through her personal life, she’s quick to acknowledge we were all living through this in some form. The pandemic naturally looms over the proceedings, as when the world fractures and grinds to a halt in “The Power’s Out,” a surreal fallout ballad anchored by Le Bon’s mutated bass sounds.

But if all this sounds like All Born Screaming is mired in suffering, it’s quite the opposite. You can almost hear Clark’s heaven and hell as destination and origin — the album a journey up from despair and existential angst. “To me, the first half of the record is base — whether it’s death or destruction or your own inner monologue of brutal self-loathing where you’re staring into the void, like, ‘Life is impossible,'” Clark told The Guardian. “Then the second half is, ‘Well we got to fucking live it, so let’s grab it by the jugular.'”

From its festering opening tracks through its shadowy middle stretch, All Born Screaming suddenly emerges into some kind of light in its concluding stretch. “Strange Fruit” is still shot through with grief — it opens with a depiction of SOPHIE’s tragic death in 2021 — but glides on glistening synths that sound like someone learning to skip across clouds. It, in turn, is followed by “So Many Planets,” Clark’s “two-tone done wrong” experiment that surprisingly sticks the landing. “I have to visit so many planets before I find my own,” she sings in the chorus — an apt description of St. Vincent’s arc, wandering out to various seas before arriving back at All Born Screaming.

Then, at the end, there’s “All Born Screaming” — the epic seven-minute finale, the awakening after spending the previous songs traversing so much scorched earth. “I have climbed power lines and mountains just to feel above the ground,” Clark sings over nimble guitar. The groove has changed: Whereas the beats of “Broken Man” and “Flea” jerk and froth, “All Born Screaming” is sinuous, easy, until it eventually cedes to a celestial outro of thumping electronics and a chorus of Clarks. The name of the song had apparently been with Clark for nearly 20 years, but it came back to her now, for the “ecstasy and agony and everything that it means to be alive.” It’s a rare moment of unabashed and unfiltered resolution from St. Vincent: a song that is true catharsis of the suffering and anxiety before it, a full-throated celebration of life in all its complexities.

Annie Clark has been reborn before. She did it when she first assumed the St. Vincent mantle, she did it when she abandoned her late ’00s Brooklyn baroqueness for the futurist evolutions of Strange Mercy and St. Vincent, and again when she became an unlikely mainstream firebrand, and again when she put on a blonde wig and traveled back to the ’70s. Now, on All Born Screaming, she is reborn as herself — no pretense, no filter, no screen. It’s a joyous sound, St. Vincent wailing against the world not just in grief, but exultant and defiant.

All Born Screaming is out 4/26 on Total Pleasure/Virgin Music Group.

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