The follow-up to St. Vincent's (Annie Clark's) first album "Marry Me" (2007) features eleven new songs, all written and arranged by Clark. The arrangements are more masterful, the songwriting grander, the performances ever more confident and inspired. Clark toured extensively in support of "Marry Me" with artists like The National, Death Cab For Cutie, and Arcade Fire, and was named Female Artist Of The Year at the 2008 PLUG Independent Music Awards. Before recording as St. Vincent, she was a member of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring band, and she performed with Glenn Branca's guitar orchestra.
Review by Heather Phares
St. Vincent's Annie Clark is a unique talent; she's as much a musician as she is a songwriter, and both her sounds and her words are delicately uncompromising. She blends rock, jazz, electronic, and classical touches together so seamlessly that it doesn't seem remarkable, and as lovely as her voice and music can be, she's too strange and too smart to be merely winsome. Marry Me was as bold as its title proposal suggested, uniting her sardonic, whip-smart viewpoint and jaunty music into songs with beacon-like clarity. Things are murkier, but no less fascinating, on Actor, Marry Me's darker and more ambitious follow-up. Musically and lyrically, the album often feels like a duel (and occasionally, a duet) between Clark's collected, literate side and her raging emotions. This is especially striking on Actor's arrangements and instrumentation, which are even more expressive than they were on Marry Me. "The Strangers" opens the album with choral vocals, woodwinds, and typically charming/unsettling lyrics: "Desperate doesn't look good on you/Neither does your virtue." But before things get too dainty, massively distorted guitar and drums let out the fury that's been brewing in the song the entire time (later, "The Bed" offers an even sharper contrast between innocence and violence). "Marrow" is just as startling, switching from pretty to abrasive and back again with a swiftness that's surprising, even knowing how fond Clark is of turning her songs on their sides. She also loves couching uncomfortable moments in sweet sounds and vice versa, so it's no surprise that Actor's poppiest songs are its most disturbing. On the album's single, the forceful rocker "Actor Out of Work," she pulls in and levels a lover in just over two minutes, beginning with alluring "oohs" and then twisting the knife with putdowns like "You're the curses through my teeth" -- the song's brisk dance between hot and cold is dazzling. Likewise, "Laughing with a Mouth of Blood" pairs the album's most gruesome song title with one of its most honeyed melodies. As brilliantly as Clark uses these contrasts, at times they threaten to overpower Actor's songs, and the slightly more straightforward, Marry Me-like tracks such as "Save Me from What I Want" and "The Party" help balance the album with some breathing space. Similarly, while the album's elaborately layered sounds are engrossing, they tend to overshadow Clark's equally thoughtful lyrics at first -- although when she sings "Tomorrow's some kind of stranger who I'm not supposed to see" on "The Neighbors," it's with more palpable emotion than anything she sang on Marry Me. "The Sequel" ends Actor on a fittingly uneasy, open-ended note, given all the complexities that came before it. This is some of St. Vincent's most complicated music, but its fearless creativity rewards repeated listening, as Clark has few rivals when it comes to seducing ears and challenging minds at the same time.
Annie Clark, the musician otherwise known as St. Vincent, projects an aura of eerie perfection-- beautiful, poised, good-humored, and well-adjusted to a degree uncommon for rock performers, let alone ordinary people. She's clearly not oblivious to her disarming qualities. On the covers of both her albums, her wide eyes and porcelain features give her the appearance of a cartoon princess come to life, and in the songs contained therein, she sings with the measured, patient tones of a benevolent, maternal authority figure. The thing that separates Clark from any number of earth mother Lilith Fair types, however, is her eagerness to subvert that effect. Her album covers may showcase her pretty face, but her blank expression and the tight framing leave the images feeling uncomfortably ambiguous. Her voice and arrangements are often mellow and soothing, but those sounds mainly serve as context as she exposes undercurrents of anxiety and discomfort hidden just beneath a gorgeous façade.
The songs on St. Vincent's second album, Actor, are primarily sung from the perspective of women who feel stifled and restless in their safe, orderly lives. Her characters worry about the judgment of neighbors and strangers, struggle with boredom and complacency, attempt to sublimate or defuse their anger, and, in one of the record's darkest selections, fantasize about disappearing completely into a new identity. Her lyrics are sympathetic observations rendered with clear, economical language focused on a specific moment of conflict or epiphany, occasionally undercut with self-deprecating asides and subtle humor. Even when the music is at its most dramatic, as when songs slip out of placid, Disney-esque string accompaniment into jagged, distorted guitar passages, Clark consistently understates her characters' angst, and buries their negative emotions under layers of denial, stoicism, and subservience to the desire of others.
The sound of the recordings depict the nuances of these deliberately muted emotions with uncanny accuracy, but the result is not overly polite or unaffecting. On the contrary, Clark's compositions hone in on precise fluctuations in mood, and flesh out complex inner worlds for the women suggested in her lyrics. At some points, as in the climax of "Black Rainbow" and the groovy, robotic hysteria of "Marrow", she achieves a harrowing expression of panic and desperation, but she does just as well in conveying the tension and pressures within less bombastic numbers such as "The Bed" and "Save Me From What I Want". The latter, which takes its title from one of artist Jenny Holzer's best-known aphorisms, is particularly successful in the way its faintest textural details communicate an unease at odds with its airy tone and steady beat.
Since Clark's voice seldom strays from a calm, lovely tone, her guitar parts articulate much of the record's anxieties and provide its moments of cathartic release. Her style is melodic and controlled, conjuring abrasive textures that nevertheless have a clean, meticulous quality that complements her immaculate arrangements as well as her characters' temperate demeanor. Despite a reliance on processed tonality, she manages to avoid a sterile coldness, and has a way of performing her most tightly composed hooks with a touch of looseness and immediacy. In her heaviest, most warped riffs, Clark finds the grace in her subjects' frustration and purges their fear and repressed anger with a glorious, singular noise.
In "Actor Out of Work", an atypically straightforward rock song early in the album's sequence, Clark uses the title phrase as a sad epithet for an inappropriate yet attractive suitor with an inability to lie convincingly. Acting, of course, is a lot more than just lying and pretending. It's about inhabiting characters, being able to fill in subtext with cadence and gesture, and having the empathy required to understand the motivations and actions of the person being portrayed. With that in mind, the album is perfectly titled, as Actor proves St. Vincent as an artist capable of crafting believable, complicated characters with compassion, insight, and exacting skill.
— Matthew Perpetua, May 5, 2009