Remember how surprised you were when Pulp Fiction turned out to be great? A small movie made by a little-known director that starred a questionable cast didn’t scream classic cinema, but that’s what it was.
Now think about how bad the movie Be Cool was. If you even saw it – and not many people did – you remember that it was the first time John Travolta and Uma Thurman shared the screen since Pulp Fiction. It was based on an Elmore Leonard novel, which was the sequel to the beloved Get Shorty. It had so much going for it, but it buckled under the weight of its own expectations.
The lesson I and many other filmgoers learned was that you need to be wary of a project that comes with too many positives.
This curse of an artistic perfect storm often translates into the music world as well. When St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) released her 2007 debut, Marry Me, she came with an impressive résumé: work with Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, an education from Berklee and an impressive EP the year before. It was as if indie fans had gone the Dr. Frankenstein route and created their ideal musician. Naturally, with all this promise going for Clarke, those of us anticipating her debut feared we would suffer our own Promethean fate.
Then Marry Me was released and it was . . . pretty damn good, actually. The deceptive album cover is a portrait of curly-haired Clark indifferently staring at the viewer as if she forgot her photo shoot was that day. The upper portion of her gray dress and the lighter gray backdrop are broken up by her pale skin. As a photograph it’s intriguing; as an album descriptor it’s misleading. Marry Me is a quiet, consistent album that relies on nuance, but it’s not this stark. It’s lush and steeped in intricate production that would make BjÃ¶rk proud.
The cover for St. Vincent’s follow-up, Actor, shows another close-up of a stoic Clark looking off camera, curly hair and pale skin set against a coral backdrop, and her gold shirt collar barely poking into frame. It’s as if the photographer set out to shoot Marry Me 2: This time with feeling! And in many respects, that’s exactly what Actor sounds like.
Clark avoids a sophomore slump by building on her debut’s template and branching off, always staying within her limits. On a few of Marry Me‘s tracks, such as “Your Lips are Red”, you catch hints of her guitar capabilities, even if most of the album is about putting on headphones and catching the deceptively rich arrangements. On Actor the guitar is front and center on a bulk of the tracks, however, Clark remains a soft-voiced chanteuse quietly going about her work as the musical mayhem erupts behind her. For example, “The Strangers” opens with a haunting choir that sounds as if it’s singing in a cathedral, not prefacing a stomping drum loop and sliding guitar. When you hear Clarke’s soft, emotionless voice float over the music, you might think she’s forgotten what track she’s singing on. Heavier guitars and drums rush in to take over for a brief interlude, but Clark brings the music back to its calm start. In four minutes she’s created the perfect thesis statement for Actor: It will be cinematic and dynamic, and rely on a music-vs.-lyrics dichotomy.
The album’s first single, “Actor Out of Work”, barely crosses the two-minute mark and has a stronger rhythm than all of Clark’s previous work combined. Quick drums and smooth vocals act as a support to distorted guitars. Clark admonishes, “You’re a supplement, you’re a salve / You’re a bandage, pull it off / I can quit you, cut it out.” The song’s rushed tone dares the listener to question if she’ll make good on her threat or if she’s just trying to convince herself. With a simple “Ooooh” chorus, it feels as if Clark isn’t keen to dwell on the topic publicly – she’s in and out before you can decode her game.
Actor peaks in the middle third with the run of “Actor Out of Work”, “Black Rainbow”, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood”, and “Marrow.” In these four songs you can hear the range of the album. “Black Rainbow” is a Hitchcock score incarnated as a pop tune about keeping danger at bay until the final stretch, when ominous strings emerge from the fuzzy guitars to remove any pop sensibility, sinking the song in cinematic horror. “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” continues the macabre tone. As if the title weren’t disturbing enough, Clark describes different situations that put her in danger (a drained out pool, for example), disconnected relationships, and postmortem plans. Yet, her whisper-like voice and the lifting strings convince you there’s going to be a happy ending. There’s not; it’s just her way of distracting you from the gloom.
Then comes “Marrow”, the strongest track and the one you knew was waiting to come out on Marry Me, but never did. A flighty orchestral introduction segues into a haunting choir and a thumping drum pedal. In a bizarre moment of rock guitar meets disco horns, Clark shouts, “H-E-L-P / Help me / Help me”. You could dance to her desperate pleading, but you’d feel guilty to do so.
“Marrow” is a prime example of Clark using the music to convey as much of her message as the lyrics. She did this well on her debut, but more often than not those moments were contemplative and subtle. Fans of those intimate moments will be disappointed for the majority of Actor, but if they can get past the sonic differences, they will see that the songwriting here is stronger than it ever was. The quietest moments of Marry Me faltered when Clark’s lyrics and arrangements became twee and resembled those of a coffee shop chanteuse. The final four tracks of Actor have the same somber feel of those moments, but they are strengthened by stronger lyrics and song structure this time around. Listen to “The Party” and you’ll hear how Clark anchors her narrative in concrete details, which were often missing on a track such as “Human Racing”.
If the title is any suggestion that this is Clark embracing her inner thespian, then we can only hope that she’ll be more than willing to keep channeling the different sides of her songwriting in the future. Clark sounds keen on playing with her style, rather than running away from it. In a world where many acts rely on flavor-of-the-month producers to branch out, this is refreshing and exciting.