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New music: St. Vincent dissects 21st century identity on brilliant new album

St. Vincent - St. Vincent
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Loma Vista Records

St. Vincent - "St. Vincent"

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In a charming interview earlier this week on The Colbert Report, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, revealed the concept behind her new album and the goal of her music.

“I think I’ve always tried to live at the intersection between accessibility and lunatic fringe,” Clark told Colbert. “I think there’s some place in the middle of that venn diagram that is...the most interesting to me artistically.”

Colbert acted befuddled and confused, of course, but St. Vincent fans have long known her as an artist who exists in the shadow between these dualities. Some of her sweetest and most beautiful songs are spattered with grime and filth, and vice versa. Her voice is airy and delicate, her lyrics direct and cutting. There has always been a coiled tension to her music as a result of these contrasts, as well as an emphasis on perception and identity.

The eponymous title of Clark’s astonishing new album is apt: Musically, St. Vincent is an amalgam of her many talents and facets. Her trademark buzzing, antiseptic guitar stabs show up for crucial cameos on “Rattlesnake,” “Birth in Reverse,” and “Regret.” Electronic doodles have always filled the margins of her music, but the new album is anchored by synthesized melodies and head-nodding beats, to the point that it’s easy to imagine an intrepid blog rapper getting loose over the first bars of “Huey Newton.” “Digital Witness” has the funky brass that played a surprisingly meaty role on her collaboration with David Byrne.

What elevates St. Vincent above its three predecessors is its pointed emphasis on the notions of self-identity in the 21st century. “We now have this other realm, which is the digital realm, to recreate ourselves...make ideal versions of ourselves,” Clark told Colbert, and throughout the album, Clark treats identity like it's just another a username or avatar. The single “Digital Witness” deals with "selfie-ication" of culture explicitly, as Clark wonders, “What’s the point of even sleeping/ If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/ What’s the point of doing anything?” Elsewhere, Clark seems to be pushing back against technology. On “Birth in Reverse,” she describes an ordinary day as “take out the garbage, masturbate” and on the tone-setting opener “Rattlesnake,” Clark sings about running around naked out near the power-lines to capture the feeling of being "the only one in the world."

St. Vincent builds motion with a push and pull between the analog and digital, the messiness of flesh compared to the sterile perfection of our digital personas. But there’s a shackling effect of falling too far down the online rabbit hole -- “I’m entombed in a shrine of zeros and ones,” she sings on “Huey Newton” -- and faith is of little comfort. “I prefer your love to Jesus,” Clark sings poignantly on “I Prefer Your Love,” a song that would favorably recall Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U" were it not for one crucial difference: “I Prefer Your Love" is about an ailing mother, making it all the more heartrending.

It’s fitting that St. Vincent has fallen in with Byrne, the former frontman of Talking Heads, because her music is clearly a successor to the fearless, genre-defying art rock that group was making 30 years ago. With arch lyrics that capture the spirit of the times along with a contemporaneous musical vocabulary, St. Vincent is like a modern update on their timeless style.

A reboot, you might even call it.