On the album art of “St. Vincent,” Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) glares from atop a pink throne, a far cry from the quizzical gazes on her previous covers. St. Vincent is back and here to take command, even if that command falters at times. At best, the self-titled “St. Vincent” is Clark’s most powerful, concise record that showcases her talent as one of the boldest songwriters today. Each track is packed with a punch harder than the previous. Yet in all of its machismo, the heart and variety of her earlier albums seem lost in this new effort.
Once known for her complex, orchestral compositions (Clark briefly studied at Berklee College of Music), “St. Vincent” strips the instrumentation to the essentials — guitars, keys, percussion, vocals (and sometimes bass). Taking a cue from collaborator David Byrne, St. Vincent no longer hides herself behind blankets of instruments, but instead lets the songs speak for themselves. The result is a blend of electronic and her previous alternative rock, which is admirable but mixed at times. Clark is not only a fantastic songwriter but a skilled instrumentalist. She showcases her complex, frenetic guitar playing in a way that’s neither pretentious nor showy, like the prog-esque “Bring Me Your Loves” or “Regret.” Her penchant for hooks are stronger than ever, even when singing a line like “What an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate” on first single “Birth in Reverse.” “Digital Witness,” the album’s brassy second single, may be the catchiest song Clark has ever written. She proves on “St. Vincent” that she can write experimental and chaotic songs that at their core are still pop music.
The problem with “St. Vincent,” despite Clark’s songwriting growth, is that the songs are all cut from the same cloth. With such a similar sound palette for each track, “St. Vincent” slogs by its second half. It is not to say her previously lush arrangements feel absent, but nothing new is introduced with each song. There is that same distorted guitar tone, that pause for the Moog synth and the cut up drum loops that are used every time. The one breath of fresh air, “I Prefer Your Love,” is a gorgeous ballad with the oddly poignant line “I prefer your love to Jesus” and shows Clark at her most intimate. The rest of the songs lack the heart of “I Prefer Your Love” in lieu of brash, rock songs. At once a curious, wistful lyricist, Clark’s new songs are forceful and unforgiving. Like the Orwellian leader she portrays on her album cover, the songs feel written by some character she created rather than herself. It makes for more powerful songs, but lacks the earnestness of her early records.
With her most concise album to date, it becomes clear why Annie Clark self-titled her newest effort well into her discography. Despite its shortcomings, “St. Vincent” is her finest album and a treat for fans of St. Vincent.
Best tracks: “I Prefer Your Love,” “Digital Witness”