Annie Clark has made something painfully humbling with Actor. As the singular mind and voice behind St. Vincent, her music and lyrical vision reach a darker and more satirical place that possesses the unique dressings of home. Clark’s inventive breakout record Marry Me wasn’t much more optimistic; with that effort, she tied apocalyptic prophesies to the romanticism of late night Bohemia. At one time Clark made music that was fascinating but a little too well mannered to be provocative. Now she might have the best record of 2009.
Her 4AD debut goes several steps further by digging into our paltry efforts to reinvent ourselves out of existential dread. For all of its gladness and enthusiasm in delivery, Actor’s central purpose lies in stripping away much of the carefully constructed artifice that modern life offers up as a means of distraction from fully realized despair. Most of the songs have characters engaged in some form of emotionally stinted art. In turn, phoniness is seen through the eyes of its lyrical victims. “Strangers” lodges dual repetitions of the line “Paint the black hole blacker” in a slowly unfolding story of an unfaithful lover until the canvass has been drenched. “Actor Out of Work” hits the point more directly by tossing callous accusations of fraud and emotional manipulation brought on by a vacuous performer. The practice of “acting” is viewed by Clark as a larger artifice that melts us all into petty and melodramatic goo. In her vision, we become simpering voyeurs who paradoxically alienate each other the more we want to become appealing people. It sort of makes you long for the good old days when she just wanted to burn Paris to the ground.
Thematic musings aside, what makes this St. Vincent record outstanding is the maturity of the music. Just about every song pops with an electrical jolt that warrants a few listens to gauge exactly what’s happening. The sound Clark builds is a blindingly bright one, referencing her many years as a multi-instrumentalist by using every shimmering item in the store. Each piece is thick and consistently loud at times, drowning out conventional lead vocals and guitars by percussion, distorted strings, overlapping background vocals and blaring horns. “Black Rainbow” seems to go through three movements in a little over four minutes: western classical woodwinds change to Hammond B3 organs which in turn flip to heavy guitar lines that might make J. Mascis blush before finishing up with light violins. Early 1960s jazz riffs pop up intermittently throughout the record, as do blaring church chorals and spiritual arrangements that sometimes stretch for minutes at a time, as they do on “Party.” Songs never settle into an overt stylistic pattern but still manage to maintain a consistent rhythm. There’s nothing out there right now, in most respects, that feels quite like this album.
Best of all is the more experienced character to Clark’s singing. She can still perform like a chanteuse, but there’s an added feeling of lessons learned at a young age. During “Neighbors” simple sadness is heightened to full-fledged paranoia using the same black emerald voice that normally describes a more serene beauty. Actor puts an already successful career by St. Vincent into the major leagues and it will be disappointing if this record is quickly forgotten by the taciturn and back-handed praise that comes with being an indie flavor of the month. Clark anticipates that brand of cynicism in “Sequel,” which contains the album’s calling card of hollow and insincere acting. Besides being another outstanding track on an outstanding album, it also serves as a nice summation of what the album accomplishes beautifully.