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Annie Clark Burns Down the Boys’ Club on the Poised, Effortless ‘St. Vincent’

St. Vincent
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 25, 2014
Label: Loma Vista/Republic

In the relatively short span of what now constitutes four St. Vincent albums, Annie Clark has become an icon. That’s no surprise — she’s smart and witty and beautiful, and her music is quick in its rewards, intellectual but hooky. But what’s really gotten the singer/songwriter/guitarist to the apex is the way she resists the gendering of her work. There’s something fantastically cunning about both her art and her persona, and whether that came from a messianic streak or a simple desire to avoid rock’s tired binaries, something strange and wonderful has happened as a result: She has given us a little desperately needed traction in moving past the Women in Rock era. Her dazzler of a new album at least delivers us to the threshold, daring us to imagine a world where female artists are not posited as de facto outsiders.

St. Vincent is the sound of getting over it; early reviews and features have fixated on its confidence, but what’s more impressive is its liberation. Clark has made an album free of the one issue that hamstrung its three predecessors: the sense that every turn was plotted in advance, that the fun was hemmed in by a kind of deliberateness. This one is lithe and liquid, shy of a masterwork but still a fucking great record, top to bottom. While her songwriting has never been in doubt, it’s absolved of the showiness that stymied, say, 2009’s Actor; now, if she’s flaunting anything, it’s how impeccable a pop technician she is, dipping between the rhetoric of classic rock (those Sabbath-y yawns of distortion), classical voicings, and tightly hyper-melodic pop blasts. She’s never been more poised, and never been more casual about it.

It’s not hard to imagine Clark, a woodshedding guitar-shredder borne of post-Riot Grrrl can-do, dismissing the quick praise for her teenage avidity and the lowered expectations that came with it, goading herself instead to aim higher: Where’s the joy in an easy shot? When you think you have the capacity to be a true artist — one who gets all the serious interview questions like the boys do, rather than the endless invitations to relive all the doubt and sexism you endured while knocking on the clubhouse door — how do you get there? By flaunting that talent without letting it define you. She’s since amassed a discography that dissolves the lingering notion that “female” and “virtuosity” are in juxtaposition.

How did she neutralize our ability to categorize (or rather marginalize) her work as “feminine”? By constantly re-asserting her primacy and demanding the same fealty we show toward our genius men. She does not shy from power or credit: She compared herself to Bowie and covered Big Black. Her band does not appear in her videos or on her album covers; her voice is the only one we hear. But nor does she get too personal: She sings of love, but keeps it vague, never sounding broken or fully undone. She is not confessional; “visceral” is not her thing. She’s never spoken of alienation from either the underground or the mainstream she courted. Once she outgrew her place as a sideman (for Sufjan Stevens, plus whatever that 80-person-band was called), she immediately took her place in our rock cosmos for granted. On 2012’s Love This Giant, she asserted a (rightful) peership with David Byrne, who has been a secular saint since ’77. She is unassailable as a player and an intellectual, and makes sure we spot those bona fides: Find another album that gives dap to Joan Didion and Larry Carlton in equal measure. All this because she didn’t have to just be the best — she had to be bulletproof in order to be free.

St. Vincent also shows she’s a good study: Clark has cited Prince as a prime influence here, and you can hear it in the tight three-chord funk vamps (see “Psychopath”), and little leads and licks that push the songs into new melodic territory (album opener “Rattlesnake”). The result might indeed remind you of Sign O’ the Times (another record begun within a day of its star attraction wrapping a tour), given the vignette feeling of songs like “Prince Johnny,” wherein Clark sings of invisibility in the face of some boy’s habit: “Prostrate on my carpet / You traced the Andes with your index / And bragged of when and where and who you’re gonna bed next.” It’s as intimate a scene as you’ll get, unless we’re counting that ribald “Birth in Reverse” line “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate”; the oblique “Bring Me Your Loves” is more concerned with lust, whereas on “Digital Witness,” she demands “all of your mind” amid sinewy synths and guitars that bleat like horns when they’re not crunching with fuzz.

Still, the Catholic hangover that popped up regularly on 2011’s Strange Mercy is a heavy presence on the follow-up, too, at least for the first half: redemption and prayer on “Prince Johnny,” lying and peeping on “Birth in Reverse,” a Hail Mary on “Huey Newton,” confession on “Digital Witness.” Though she disses Jesus himself on the matrilineal pledge of “I Prefer Your Love,” so it’s hardly genuflection — just another good/evil binary to fuck with. She plays her own angelic choir on “Regret,” with its terse little Devo riff overdubbed to its infinite scuzz point — a delightfully tricky but undoubtedly sexy new-wave homage that would be an unwieldy assemblage in anyone else’s paws. That right there is what makes this record so near-flawless: You cannot imagine anyone else pulling this off. St. Vincent is the work of a true artist.