Yesterday, while walking around Greenpoint, listening to St. Vincent’s new album, I noted two young people sporting whitish-purple dyed hair. Perhaps it was my tunnel vision, but I wondered whether the influx of gerontophile ‘dos in a youth-invaded neighborhood was at all inspired by the look St. Vincent unveiled a few months ago, when she started releasing material from her upcoming album. The color of an artist’s hair may seem an inane element to focus on amid the release of such a good new album, but her locks — beautifully violated by synthetics — are actually quite representative of St. Vincent’s approach to technology on St. Vincent, released in the US today.
In the video for her single “Digital Witness,” Annie Clark plays the same character she always has, but with this slight variation: doe-eyed and anesthetized, she formerly came off as doll-like, whereas now, recontextualized by a cityscape of retro-futurism and tyrannized by her frazzled mane of inhumanly colored hair, she appears as a ’60s interpretation of the very 2010s idea of “The Singularity.” Her character is an overstimulated, disengaged robot-lady who might, if someone presses the right button, play an impassioned guitar-riff, without ever suggesting the slightest form of facial or bodily expression. With a hair color that tows the line between just-born and elderly, Annie Clark’s new look seems post-human. Like garnishing on an empty plate, the ‘do is a hollow emblem of excitement placed atop Clark’s depiction of self as an identity-stripped object.
Clark referred to this as a “party album that could be played at a funeral,” and its peppy instrumentals clothe vocals that fear the emptiness beneath. From song to song, Clark’s St. Vincent gives voice to a void longing for substance. With that in mind, here’s a track-by-track guide to this anti-ode to 21st-century artifice. Get acquainted with these songs, and perhaps in the next few days you, too, will start noticing (or hallucinating) whitish-purple-haired pseudo-St. Vincents popping up in your neighborhood, emulating the album’s aesthetic of neo-nothingness.
“Follow the power-lines back from the road / No one around so I take off my clothes / am I the only one in the only world.” An overarching theme of this album is man finding their place within technology — then finding that, even as they merge with it, they may not have one. The album’s solipsistic first lines open onto a song where the singer runs from the ever-pursuing rattling of technological advancement (perhaps this is a leap, but work with me); it begins with Mario Cart-ish glitches that overtake her voice by the end of the song. With its unflappably perky sound, one could ignore the lyrics and use this track for an “I’m-winning-at-life” power jog, never catching onto its dissonant suggestion that the danger creeping up behind you will overtake you.
2. “Birth in Reverse”
If “Rattlesnake” makes you want to power-jog, this song makes you want to hop atop the nearest pogo-stick. This track about laziness and the uninspiring climate of contemporary America, where all people do is “take out the garbage, masturbate,” is, unsurprisingly (as Clark’s a sucker for opposition), the album’s most hyperactive track.
3. “Prince Johnny”
On “Prince Johnny,” Clark slows down for a moment to seethe, then, turning her criticism back on herself, to beg. She pleads to a current (or former) lover — who seems to need others’ validation to make him a “real boy” — to make her a “real girl.” The characters thus find themselves stuck in a chain of endowing others with the keys to their selfhood. The lyrical progression from scolding to confessional works, and its chorus is the album’s most arresting.
4. “Huey Newton”
With a brief intro that sounds like reality TV spoof music à la Queen of Jordan, “Huey Newton” rolls, in a mellow suspended state, into an accidental Ambien trip Clark found herself in in Helsinki, in which she and Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton bonded. Clark told NPR’s All Songs Considered, “You know when you’re online and you go, ‘I really need to look up the Irish potato famine. And then, next thing you know, you make a pit stop at the Black Plague. And then you’re like, ‘Oh wait, what is Kate Middleton wearing?’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh! Huey Newton.’ It was sort of meant to feel like that.” Using a staunchly political name in an apolitical song here suggests the negation of meaning in the internet’s sink-hole of infinite meaning. Indeed, the song slackly shuffles along, as might any late-night sleep-Googling, until Clark attempts to break out of her stupor in a guitar blaring, lyric-growling admission of being “entombed in a shrine of zeros and ones.”
5. “Digital Witness”
“Digital Witness,” whose video was mentioned above, is at once catchy and maddening. A brass march whose speed could create a Higgs boson, it seems influenced by every fictitious totalitarian state where patriotism means bodies as rigid as its architecture, and music whose sole purpose is to punctuate and ensure said stoicism. With the cascading refrain, “People turn the TV on it looks just like a window,” you might just find yourself chanting the song, holding a dishrag up like a flag and marching around your living-room sofa like I… didn’t.
6. “I Prefer Your Love”
With Sinead O’Connor-y whispers, Clark invokes the best of the ’90s in this moment of rare tranquility. “All the good in me is because of you,” she sings to her mother, but despite the newfound ’90s sincerity, there’s something in the steadiness of the percussion, the lulling of the backing vocals, and her trademark pairing of synthetic and authentic that renders the song so achingly cold and far off, despite how it may pine after warmth.
“Regret” employs choral call-and-response reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s lusher tracks. Harking back to the first lines of the album, Clark asks herself, “Who is the one animal all by yourself?” to which her own voice responds, “all of us.” With lighthearted arrangements implying contented acceptance of this fact, it’s as though the fearsome rattling from the first song has caught up with the protagonist, taken her hostage, and drugged her into happy oblivion.
8. “Bring Me Your Loves”
Imagine the Mission Impossible theme song reimagined by RuPaul, with vocals by your scary middle-school gym teacher. Again mixing the cute and the dissonant, Clark manages to make her guitar sound like a perturbed strawberry while repeating the militaristic chant “bring me your loves all of your loves I want to love them too you know,” a line that could, if delivered differently, fit nicely into Dido’s oeuvre. Nothing of the sort, here.
In an album where all of the songs serve a key purpose, at least within my first ten-or-so listens, “Psychopath” seems to be the least necessary — a reminder of better, bolder songs on the album.
10. “Every Tear Disappears”
Another song that continues the album’s break from greatness before returning to grace in its last track, “Every Tear Disappears” sets a frenetic percussive echo over a distantly whistled tune, repeating the aphorism as a weak half-chorus. While one may agree with the sentiment, the lyric, “Call the Twenty-First Century, Tell her ‘Give us a break’” seems a phoned-in version of what St. Vincent’s asking on the album’s superior tracks.
11. “Severed Crossed Fingers”
“Severed Fingers Crossed” takes on the “I’m older and more broken than I was at the beginning of the record, but goddamn it, I’m uplifted”-type melody of any redemptive last track. But if the karaoke synths and wordless choral interjections/affirmations make this track sound uplifted, Clark’s lyrics do anything but. Clark here pays homage to her hairdo; “humiliated by age, terrified of youth” she appears as someone paralyzed in dull agelessness. The closest thing to a hopeful last line: “found my severed fingers crossed in the rubble there.”