n the cover of St. Vincent's new self-titled album, the band's architect, Annie Clark, sits on a mod throne, sporting grey-white hair and a shimmering party dress, looking like a Narnian debutante or the benevolent dictator of a futuristic sky city.
Clark's face adorned the fronts of her first two records, too: a direct, forever-unblinking gaze on the first and a to-the-side glance on the second. Until now, she'd been able to startle just by appearing as herself, or wide-eyed, fresh faced and very pretty. Focusing on a female artist's looks in 2014 feels trite at best and chauvinistic at worst, but Clark's immaculately developed presentation has been key to her art, a Trojan Doll she's used to smuggle ugly tones and ominous sentiment into the over-polite confines of melodic indie-rock. Her look has mattered, too, because it's famously hard to figure her out otherwise.
Clark clutches shreds of privacy with a stone grip: She's seemed atypically reluctant to provide the table-setting personal narratives that drive album-cycle magazine profiles. She's stonewalled interviewers asking gender-focused questions and, when queried about the significance in moving from storied independent label 4AD to a major label subsidiary, demurred. Strange Mercy, her terrific 2011 record, was apparently fueled by great personal loss that she's adamantly refused to explain. Pages of Internet fan forums are full of wild speculation on every aspect of her personal life.
That fan dance continues to play out for St. Vincent. Instrumentally, the album presents Clark's boldest and most conflicted sound—her skronkiest, most riff-dependent compositions, plus her most confident pop moves to date. It's dominated by uptight art-funk that strives to split the reaction evenly between body and head. Its physicality suggests a superior end product of the work-shopping done on Love This Giant, her underwhelming collaboration with the Talking Heads icon David Byrne.
Clark is a remarkable guitarist, the sort of Fripp-ian acolyte who wows venue sound techs but has refused to make that skill the true focus of her music. Instead, she's hovered over her riffs with still, super-melodic vocals. But as beautiful and intricate as her output has been, it often seems as if she's holding something back, just as she does in interviews. On stage, at least, flashes of purely aggressive behavior are doled out stingily—crowd surfing in heels as she played her unhinged "Krokodil" at Coachella or the set where she perfected Big Black's "Kerosene." This constant poise amplifies a nagging tension in her music and persona. When in the fuck is she finally going to rock out and let go?
That question suits the lyrics of the new record, where Clark dwells on blurred distinctions between real and virtual space and details the low stomach-sickness of a life lived online. From her own shell, she's suggesting we come out of our digital skins, at least a bit. This has become a quite common preoccupation of modern pop art. Spike Jonze's film Her and Charlie Brooker's disquieting UK television anthology Black Mirror are two of the more successful recent pieces, assigning a sliding scale of sinister portent to the lifestyle shift. The danger in this material comes from overstating the corruptive influence of our devices, reducing a complex, flexible relationship to stale cliché. Arcade Fire's disco-ish double album Reflektor, for example, regarded tech with a sort of recoil that seemed, at times, flatly square.
Though clearly disapproving of online immersion, Clark's got a slightly lighter touch. The brass-heavy single "Digital Witness" isn't particularly subtle in its assault on online narcissism, asking "If I can't show it, you can't see me. What's the point of doing anything?" But she never has a moment as unintentionally goofy as when, on Reflektor, a spooked Win Butler wonders if the "camera really does take your soul." At worst, Clark is a touch too abstract on the block-rocky "Huey Newton." It's a song best explained by the "why am I still awake?" feeling you get in the depths of a late-night, related-search Internet rabbit hole.
But that fits her mysterious aesthetic. In fact, perhaps the au courant technological unease grates less coming from Clark because it feels consistent with the way she's always carried herself. If she told you where to look and what it all meant, her records become far less interesting. As is, they're puzzles.
Take the album opening "Rattlesnake," which finds her walking, alone and naked, in a middle of nowhere only to be menaced by a hiding sidewinder in the brush. What could be more mythologically or metaphorically loaded? Of course, that's the one she's eager to cop to as completely autobiographical and the beginning of two recent high-profile magazine pieces. Though still an intriguing song, "Rattlesnake" can't help but be diminished slightly by that knowledge, with Aesop swapped out for a hippie on a stroll. It's just not that important that you know why Mona Lisa's staring—or smiling.