Actor, Annie Clark’s full-length followup to 2007’s Marry Me, finds the multi-instrumental vocalist/songwriter forging a fuzzier, heavier realm (in a different way than, say, Marry’s symphonic, Queen-y “Your Lips Are Red”). She said she “wanted to make [Actor’s songs] technicolor animatronic rides,” but many of these feel darker than technicolor might connote. No, St. Vincent has not suddenly gone metal … or even rock ‘n’ roll. Her compositions remain knotty and classically-inflected, but some of the cutesy tendencies of the previous collection (see the bom bom boms and worm voice of “Jesus Saves, I Spend,” etc.) have disappeared, making for a more intense listening experience. Plus, she’s writing songs with ominous titles like “Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” and “Black Rainbow,” both of which seem somehow more specifically scary than, say, Marry’s “The Apocalypse Song.” We saw the grungier St. Vincent on fairy tale-with-fuzz “The Strangers” (that last minute or so is totally triumphant) and distorted, spiraling rocker “Actor Out Of Work,” complete with its clever chord shifts and embellishments. She did live NoisePop versions of “The Strangers” and “Marrow,” too, and we noted that they’re pretty killer. How about the rest?
As far as the density goes, Clark co-produced the album with the pAper chAse’s John Congleton (Modest Mouse, Thermals, Smog, Polyphonic Spree, etc). Clark’s compositional skills were impressive on past work, and the recording better serves the talent this time, but it’s still Clark who’s on the cover, so credit should also go to how she wrote and arranged the 11 songs. And how she sings, plays guitar, bass, and keys, etc. We’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating to get a sense of the sonic textures: Her playing’s fleshed out by Hideaki Aomori (Sufjan Stevens), Alex Sopp (Björk, Phillip Glass), and she increased the rhythm section with Midlake’s McKenzie Smith and Paul Alexander. There’s also French horn, violin, sarongi, bass, and percussion. And choirs of strange disembodied voices.
What’s most attractive about Clark’s songwriting is sometimes also what’s most frustrating. Tracks can be like rollercoaster rides — It’s difficult not losing your breath when the character in “The Bed” breaks away from hiding in bed with a gun in hand and explodes into something bigger and more universal, a soaring night-sky trek worthy of the most dramatic of musicals. Others, though, feel more like compositional exercises than completed songs. Not done, but overdone? Still, even then, there are great moments and textures, like the huge drums in toward the middle of the slightly meandering, but still worthwhile “The Same But Brand New.” At other times it feels like she’s still growing into her ambition as a songwriter.
All that said, it’s a more level, sturdier, and alive sounding collection than Marry Me. It shows she was worth the attention she received earlier on. And there are moments of total exhilaration: When a pile of distortion is cycling into the mix, as on “The Neighbors,” it doesn’t feel like it’ll fall apart. Jazzy, shadowy, and cocktail lounge-esque “Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” ends with a cascading spiral of strings and upfront drums surrounding Clark vocals. It’s both urgent and laid back. “Marrow”‘s opening is Sufjan/Glass-esque, but soon gives way to a hushed, rattling passage before it turns into electro-disco. Those martial drums, strings, and ambient vocal melodies in “The Party.”
We haven’t had the album long enough to unpack all the lyrics, but it’s a common enough notion that a singer can be an Actor, a master of impressions. Each of Clark’s first person tales feel real, though you don’t necessarily get a sense of Clark as a person. Her old bandleader convinces you of his music and emotions by always being a very convincing Sufjan Stevens no matter the subject. Clark showcases a chameleon’s ability to shape shift depending on what the song requires — the results are brainier than bodily, which is an interesting move for someone who prints their face so big on the front of their record.
Actor is out 5/4 via 4AD.