She’s catnip to the critics and one of Berklee College of Music’s more successful dropouts. David Byrne digs her, her enunciation is stellar and she knows her way around the guitar. She’s a styler and a puzzler – a little like Beck. And she sings like Madonna only wishes she could.
She’s Annie Clark, though you would know her as St. Vincent. That is, if you know her at all. Oh, St. Vincent isn’t obscure. The art-rocking Oklahoman has put out four well-received solo albums, including a new confident and clever self-titled one that’s getting some of the best reviews of her pristine career.
She just hasn’t recorded the breakthrough single that would throw mainstream attention her way, perhaps for lack of trying.
Then again, something like the jittery, rubbery rocker Digital Witness should be famous. I hear fun-funky Parliament, I hear Talking Heads – St. Vincent in 2012 collaborated with Byrne on the album Love This Giant – and I am reminded of Peter Gabriel’s favourite heavy-duty mallet.
Digital Witness would seem to be about the loss of identity and reality in the high-tech world. Today’s picture screens are high-def to the extreme, so why bother looking out the window?
Life-like is life enough. And there is the all-consuming self-documentation fetish: “What’s the point of sleeping, if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me?
” If a tree falling in the forest isn’t GIF-ed, does it even fall at all?
Musically, this record (which is out Feb. 24 and currently streams free at NPR.com) is tight, synthy and groovy. No bass guitar anywhere. Rattlesnake is fidgety and funky, recalling Paul McCartney’s old Coming Up single, if I may date myself. (You might think of funky Beck, which doesn’t exactly make you a kid.)
In an interview, St. Vincent disclosed that Rattlesnake was a true story – that she had gone in the brush, stripped naked and taken a run in the wild. Until a rustle in the bushes frightened her. Me? I’d be more worried about ticks than snakes. Lyme disease is nothing to mess with, so St. Vincent is clearly brave.
She’s also thoughtful. I Prefer Your Love is a shimmering Mother’s Day card, poignant without being maudlin. It also puts religion in perspective: “I prefer your love to Jesus,” the mom-loving St. Vincent sings. In the liner notes, she thanks the members of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas. (She also thanks the great author Joan Didion.)
On more than one track, there is a hustling quality at work. With Rattlesnake, you sense St. Vincent breathing hard and sweating. Mind you, artists such as St. Vincent do not sweat, they perspire. And another thing: St. Vincent does not perspire.
She seems comfortable pushing things – working a little in the red as she reports from the edge.
On the tautly moving Psychopath, she asks “keep me in your soft sights when all the rest have moved on.” It’s a deal. It’s hard to imagine anyone looking away from St. Vincent, her polite audacity being just mesmerizing enough.