St. Vincent – Actor

St. Vincent – Actor (4AD Records; released May 5th, 2009)actor

I first learned of Annie Clark (who is the singular member of St. Vincent) about a week before I was going to see The National back in 2007, she as the supporting act. Of course I downloaded her album and quickly tried to immerse myself in her work, not wanting to be ignorant of her music. That album (Marry Me) quickly gained plays and made its way up my Last.fm chart, garnering her a #43 spot on my Top 50 list of ’07. I called her Quirky without being weird, she’s like (a) Regina Spektor crossed with a happier version of Fiona Apple…” Looking back at that quote, it does her absolutely no justice; she’s a way more talented musician than both of them combined.

Her maturation as a musician goes something like this: attends Berklee College of Music to joining Sufjan Steven‘s touring band to playing guitar with The Polyphonic Spree to releasing Marry Me in 2007 to critical acclaim, opening shows for Arcade Fire, Xiu Xiu, Television, Midlake, John Vanderslice and Death Cab For Cutie. Needless to say she’s kept herself in pretty decent company over the last five years- and she’s been able to wrangle a lot of big-name musicians into her recording sessions.

So on her latest release, Clark‘s sound continues to mature. Where Marry Me was a diverse, guitar-driven, beautiful sounding pop record that’s arty without being pretentious; Actor is its older sister- a little fuller, darker and more explorative. Produced by John Congleton (who’s worked with, well… everybody), the record has a deeper, more percussive quality at its core; there’s lusher string orchestrations (Black Rainbow), guitar noise freak-outs (Marrow), piano dirges (The Party), tongue-in-cheek song titles like Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood, and getting all self-referential (a jab at the critics?) with Just The Same But Brand New. The main focus, however; is the music- I mean, for chrissakes, the woman can play like 15 instruments.

As her music explores many different genres, she explained that unlike Marry Me (which was mainly written on guitar and piano), Actor was composed on Apple’s Garage Band. She then worked backwards, taking things out, adding melodies and lyrics- and while her lyrics explore many different subjects, there’s still a common thread running through the album. Mainly; being in the dark, blackness or lack of light. She plays around with words so delicately to get this point across; like an out-of-work actor that’s really a caterer but still tells everyone they’re an “actor”.

She refers to her various lovers in the album’s opener, The Strangers:What do I share? What do I keep from all the strangers / Who sleep where I sleep…” and uses the phrase “paint the black hole blacker” as if love could fill the giant hole inside of her. Her lust can’t be satiated by getting what she wants (Save Me From What I Want, the second track) so she resorts to “pour(ing) wine into coffee cups“, then “roaming blackouts on the streets” and meeting “psychotropic capricorns” in the song The Neighbors.

Then the album’s title track of sorts (and first single) explains why Clark‘s St. Vincent character does what she does; have a look-see:


Revisiting the theme of darkness is Black Rainbow, as StV relates how there’s one hanging over her house, reiterating that “here it’s night time, all the time”. There’s a (what should be, but oddly it’s not “out of place”) clarinet in this song during a passage between verses; the song builds on repeated and heavy staccato attacks as the instruments all come together- the release is the centerpiece of the album as the violin screeches itself into decay. Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood is as macabre as it gets, yet the lyrics display an in-the-moment type of vibe, calling herself an “amnesiac” one moment and wondering what the future holds in the next. I guess it’s in those moments when we’re experiencing an injury that we really are just in that moment.

Marrow sounds like a dancefloor banger; it’s got electro written all over it- deep, snaky basses growl under a Depeche Mode-like beat, shimmery synths and the off-key guitars wind up and away from the low end. Here, StV is ready to surrender, spelling it out in plain english “H-E-L-P-M-E“, a desperate plea from a desperate woman. The Bed is perhaps the funniest song on the album, possibly unintentional- it’s child-like and innocent at one instance (We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out”) and the next line is in perfect contradiction to it (With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve gotta teach them all a lesson”). It’s an admission of malicious intent as well as a confession- StV can’t reconcile the fact that she sees herself as both a man-eater and naive chanteuse.

The Party is my favorite track on the album, I think Clark is at her best when she’s in ballad mode- the downtempo drums, deep bass, dark piano and ethereal vocals (there’s really no chorus, it’s just four bars of oooooohs) gives it a creepy (beautiful creepy, not scary creepy) feel. The song has a false ending, returns after a few seconds at rest and comes back even slower and darker. The lyrics explain some type of accusation, perhaps the idea of infidelity has been introduced as a party is winding down.

The album comes to a close on the final two tracks, Just The Same But Brand New and The Sequel– the two are linked because the first tells of a jilted lover trying to find coded meanings and hidden messages that just aren’t there in the letters he sends; she believes she can get him out of her mind but she’s still just the same, despondently wanting to be brand new again in an irretrievable relationship. The second of the dyad replays over and over the events of their last night together: Oh honey I was there in the dark where you lay / And I saw you with a scent on your hands going out to get you something / One, two, three flight apartment streetside / Bodies like wrecking balls fuck, fuck with dynamite”.

So the recurring theme of black holes, darkness, roaming the streets at night- could it be Actor is the nighttime record to Marry Me‘s lighter, airier, daytime appeal? I’m saying yes to that rhetorical question while posing another altogether: if Bat For Lashes‘s recent album Two Suns played on the imagery of light and celestial bodies, then is this record the antithesis of that? I also have other questions (like why ain’t Annie Clark a household name like Katy Perry and/or Lily Allen; it’s obvious she has more talent than them as well) but I can save them for an ill-timed rant in the middle of another review later on down the line…

Tracklisting:

1. The Strangers
2. Save Me From What I Want
3. The Neighbors
4. Actor Out of Work
5. Black Rainbow
6. Laughing With a Mouth of Blood
7. Marrow
8. The Bed
9. The Party
10. Just the Same But Brand New
11. The Sequel

St. Vincent