St. Vincent | Actor
Most Likely To: cement Annie Clark’s standing as a critical darling.
As listeners settle into Actor’s depths, Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) invites us to “paint the black hole blacker.” On her sophomore release, the Oklahoma-born, Texas-bred Clark writes ambitious songs that create as many wide-open spaces as they consume.
The success of Clark’s stellar debut, Marry Me, could have pressured her into a slump of Salinger-esqe proportions. Instead, she rose to the challenge, creating a worthy follow-up. Some of the songs on Marry Me evolved over the course of many years, but Clark cut Actor from the whole cloth of her imagination in less than two. Could this be the record that releases her from her previous life as a supporting performer? With this review I pledge never again to mention Clark’s time as a “Polyphonic Spree guitarist and member of Sufjan Stevens’ band.” Whether the rest of the music press decides to join me is up to them.
Actor’s tales are drenched in Clark’s special brand of dark beauty. On “The Bed” she issues the gentlest of threats: “We need a chalk outline if you can / Put your hands where we can see them” then pits her words against otherworldly strings–just this side of nails on a chalkboard–and tremulous vocals. Her lyrics track emotion that “seventeen cold showers couldn’t wash away.” Her characters are linked by circumstance and desperation. These are the types of people who can be “laughing with a mouth of blood” or admit to throwing “flowers in your face on my sister’s wedding day.”
Like a well-executed novel, everything on Actor is in its place. Clark is in full control of the artifice that she creates. It’s her characters that come undone, as she sings on “The Neighbor,” “How can Monday be all right / then on Tuesday lose my mind? / Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger / that I’m not supposed to see.”
On Actor Clark continues her fearless experimentation with sound. Unpacking the layers of “The Stranger” reveals a heavenly “ah-ah” backing chorus and a churning, gritty guitar solo underneath the chilling “paint the black hole blacker” refrain. On “Save Me From What I Want”, Clark constructs a vocal funhouse with a countless number of layered Annies singing back up. On the off-kilter dance number “Marrow,” as she asks for “H-E-L-P,” Clark pairs a stomping, electro-beat with a fuzzed out guitar riff.
Since Clark works more or less alone while recording, Actor’s carefully chosen layers must have been painstaking to construct, yet the final product is not belabored. Clark instead adds a rich (though occasionally disturbing) work to her long list of accomplishments. On “Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood” she sings, “I can’t see the future, but I know it’s got big plans for me.” Cheers to Annie! I couldn’t agree more.