Annie Clark displays a remarkable facility for change, creating constantly morphing songs contained within a shifting panoply of modes, voices, and styles, cutting delicate, glittering pop with forceful fuzz and raunchy, preening guitar work. A multi-instrumentalist with a history of institutional training and anonymous backing-band work, she retains the guitar as her signature instrument and most potent tool, lacerating otherwise divine music with down-and-dirty grit, eyes heavenward and feet muddy. The gradual expansion of sounds and textures occurring across her four solo albums as St. Vincent has been accompanied by an inverse sense of simplification, the fine-tuning of music that's grown less theatrical and more precise, imagery and language filed down to a sharp point.
It's telling that St. Vincent, her first solo effort in three years, is fixated on the idea of beginning anew, the sort of guise usually adopted by artists in desperate need of a new start. Clark has no real need for reinvention, affecting it so reliably on a macro level as to remain mostly ineffable, and no reason to be concerned with repeating herself. Yet she is anyway, and whether that concern is genuine or just a lyrical theme to be pursued across this new song suite, the focus on rejuvenation is firm, as she dots the album with tales of rises and falls, symbolic snakes in the garden, and Pinocchio-style transformations. It's appropriate that none of these hew to standard narratives, free from hokey notions of purification and rebirth. The songs themselves swing wildly from light and celebratory to loaded and dark; for every scintillating paradise like “I Prefer Your Love,” there's a glitchy, grouchy forced march like “Bring Me Your Loves.”
The real subtext here is the formation of identity in the face of crisis, the same basic crucible in which St. Vincent's music has always been formed. These are songs born out of exhaustion, but refusing to succumb to it, with an artist battling back against the rigorous repetition of the recording and touring cycle by stretching boundaries and perfecting form. “Prince Johnny” prowls around a spare structure dotted with drum-machine hiccups and bass burps, communicating a clear sense of ragged fatigue. “Digital Witness” echoes similar material from Love This Giant, her recent collaboration with David Byrne, and though it retains some of that album's soggy faux-agitprop stylings, it sounds more dynamic when not surrounded by more of the same.
That album mostly failed because it bound Clark and Byrne to a stringent production style, squelching their individual whimsy. St. Vincent imposes similar formal boundaries, but also fewer restrictions on where these songs can go, meaning a tighter structure and a definite ease of presentation. The tools used are familiar (echo-chamber voice effects, swaggering guitar solos, tempered neo-funk interludes), but they're applied with more succinctness and confidence than ever before.
St. Vincent establishes its tone immediately by describing the sand-slithering snake on “Rattlesnake” as “if Seurat had painted the Rio Grande.” With fewer things going on and her voice centered in the mix, Clark assures that little gestures come off big: the way she pops out the word “dot” while enunciating a web address on “Huey Newton,” or the unsettling repeated sounds that close out “Severed Crossed Fingers.” Robert Christgau nailed her “crystalline melody and fetching enunciation” in his equally concise 13-word review of Actor, and those qualities have only blossomed further in the years since. Her guitar may be her primary tool for shaking up and complicating otherwise strictly defined songwriting, but Clark's voice remains the thing that defines her material, the glittering lynchpin of the glorious, ever-expanding world she's created.