By William Barshop


St. Vincent told NPR that her portrait for her self-titled album was designed to make her look like a “near-future cult leader.” Staring coldly from her space-age throne, her demeanor stands in sharp contrast with the wide-eyed, innocent portraits that covered her first two albums. And while the music on St. Vincent bears her eerily precise style of songwriting, there is an aura of dominance that overtakes the persona she’s built in the past few years.

St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who has been making lyrical indie pop since 2006. Her previous album, Strange Mercy earned widespread praise, and last year she collaborated with The Talking Heads front man David Byrne and an eight-piece brass band to make “Love This Giant.” Her fourth LP is the first to follow her team-up with Byrne, and it shows with a growing comfort in the realm of absurdity.

From start to finish on St. Vincent, Clark shuffles through a collection of images, fever dreams and stranger-than-fiction anecdotes. She opens with “Rattlesnake” a twisted creation myth in which Clark hears an ominous rattle while walking naked through a Texas cattle ranch. On other songs she meets the ghost of Black Panthers leader Huey Newton and runs down the highway with a fireball close behind her.  Her narratives are as disconcerting as ever, telling the tale of “Prince Johnny” with lines like “Remember the time we went and snorted/ the piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted?”

These otherworldly imprints come with guitar effects to match, and are grounded by a fine ear for hooks. Clark seems to take notes from the pop and rock titans of the 70s and 80s, emulating the likes of Kate Bush and David Bowie with icy confidence. While she has always been known for writing exquisite melodies, the sweeping, charismatic choruses of “Psychopath” and “I Prefer Your Love” resemble Bernie Taupin and Elton John more than the bedroom pop she’s used to. Clark has also honed her Bowie-esque talent for packing intensity into the nuances of her voice. Just as Bowie’s every note inspires one to scream “and we can be heroes”, Clark’s “Severed Crossed Fingers” casts catharsis like a spell. The subdued description of being torn limb from limb creates a slow-burning magic that’s hard to resist.

Even while imitating the greats of songwriting and performing, her style is distinctly futuristic, and always a step forward from her previous work. “Bring Me Your Loves” is a clear product of time spent with The Talking Heads’ David Byrne and his love for wickedly distorted funk. She forges into the 21st century with subject matter as well. Despite being rather out of touch for an international rock star, Clark writes a cutting criticism of our Internet-age obsession with being noticed on “Digital Witness,” with the shrewd line, “What’s the point of even sleeping?/ If I can’t show it, you can’t see me.” Her most out-of-character moments, though, come on “Birth in Reverse” a wild three minutes of art-punk starring manic guitar riffs.

The uneasy mood of St. Vincent’s music has often been summed up with the name of a track from her 2009 album, Actor: “Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood.” She might seem cheerful, but her smile is pulled too tight, a laugh away from a tear. Five years later on St. Vincent, she seems to finally be comfortable with baring her teeth and showing her wounds. What she gives up in mystery she makes up for in the fierce assuredness that elevates some of her greatest songs yet.

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