There’s no substitute for bloody good songs. You can produce your music this way or that, you can perform in a way that captures the imagination and leaves people talking about you for weeks, you can collaborate with established artists and offer up something unexpected as a result, but, ultimately, what really matters is whether the tunes are there across the whole album. As it happens, ‘St. Vincent’ marked the point at which Annie Clark managed all of the above and more. As if beamed in from another planet where pop hasn’t withered into a repetitive world of synth loops, two-note piano figures and asinine chants, these are fundamentally very catchy songs delivered in a viscerally exciting manner. Much has been said about her jagged, combative guitar playing, but it’s just one part of a sound that is actually unique. How often we see that word bandied about with little evidence – or, even more frustratingly, with impossible modifiers like slightly or somewhat – causing it to lose its power. Calling an artist unique should be a plaudit but also something of a warning. Here be dragons. Not suitable for all. Don’t expect this to be easy.
Admittedly, compared to ‘Strange Mercy’, ‘St. Vincent’ is easier, but this is a spectacularly strange and yet instantly appealing record. There was much to love about the 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, ‘Love This Giant’, especially the melding of styles on songs like ‘I Am An Ape’ and ‘Lazarus’, aspects of which seem to have informed the sharp, purposeful sound of her fourth solo effort. Whether it’s the manic burst of ‘Birth In Reverse’, the stroppy fuzz of ‘Regret’ or the distorted, minimalist funk of ‘Rattlesnake’, this feels like an artist in absolute control and undeniably at the peak of their powers. I returned to her first two records recently and, while I still adore much of them, the difference between that artist and this one is palpable. The 2014 incarnation delivered eleven songs which ooze the confidence of knowing you’re doing something special.
There are plenty of other highlights worthy of mention. Take the swooning elegance of ‘Prince Johnny’, the split-musical-personality of ‘Huey Newton’ or the strutting power of ‘Digital Witness’ as evidence of how this album was packed with what it feels slightly redundant at the close of 2014 to call ‘singles’, but I’m buggered if I’m using the phrase ‘teaser track’ or other such industry bullshit. The mellow midpoint of ‘I Prefer Your Love’ offers a false but perfectly beguiling sense of calm, which the twitching, hiccuping rhythm of ‘Psychopath’, with all of its attendant vivid lyrical imagery soon dismisses. The musical equivalent of lupus that is ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ turns in on itself from the off, wilfully perverse in its wonky progress. Add in the squelchy mid-paced ‘Every Tear Disappears’ and the remarkably measured conclusion of ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ and you have a record of remarkable quality. I said something similar about ‘1989′, but this is one of those grand albums that comes across like a greatest hits from first listen. Don’t be put off by the critical consensus. It’s been caused by one thing, and one thing alone. The sheer quality of this music.