I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed to find my face still firmly intact after first listening to St. Vincent’s eponymous third record. The angular guitar shredding that made the crypto-misogynist world of rock criticism collectively sit up and drool over Annie Clark is comparatively absent here. Which, upon repeat listens, might be the most badass thing Clark has yet done.
Love This Giant, her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, made Clark an unqualified superstar, shedding the good-for-a-girl condescension that followed Strange Mercy and catapulting her before mainstream audiences. The riffs are still in there, no doubt, but they’re part of a larger toolkit Clark has learned to harness in service of her greater talent: composition. Standout single “Birth in Reverse” offsets a caffeinated drumbeat with blasé lyrics about trash removal and masturbation. This because-I-can spirit pervades the entire record. It works best over the album’s more manic offerings, like “Digital Witness,” which clearly takes its crispy-as-fuck horn groove from the Giant sessions but comes as a pleasant surprise on the album’s gentler offerings like the Sinead O’Connor-ish “I Prefer Your Love” and airy “Prince Johnny,” which features some of Clark’s best lyricism (“Remember the time we went and snorted a piece of the Berlin wall that you’d extorted/And we had such a laugh of it, prostrate on my carpet?”). Tracks like “Regret” are unabashed rockers, but in other places, like “Bring Me Your Loves,” the synthesizer has become Clark’s primary texture. The sweet spot on these songs is usually where the squiggly synth becomes indistinguishable from the fuzzed-out guitar.
Clark’s stage name has always been a compelling mask, but the fact that she should name this record likewise enforces something that critics have largely missed about the St. Vincent project. This is more than a singer-songwriter, girl-with-guitar thing. As her live show attests, Clark is an artist of performance; voice, guitar and song are all subservient to this higher calling. So it’s time we dudes (mostly) stop fantasizing about Clark posing in centerfolds for Guitar Player magazine and listen past the riffs.