The opening swell of spectral voices and clarinet on “The Strangers,” the opening track on St. Vincent‘s second album Actor sounds almost like a brief snippet from a Danny Elfman score to one of Tim Burton’s pre-Planet-of-the-Apes-slump films. It’s just a brief tease, but its quirky eeriness is an apt introduction to Actor, which, like many of Burton’s fictional settings, finds darkness lurking beneath a pretty, perfect exterior. Yet unlike the dichotomy between either Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands and the suburbs they turn upside down, Annie Clark not only maintains that pretty, perfect exterior, she allows the brooding darkness to become a part of it, making it all the more intriguing in the end.
On St. Vincent’s debut, Marry Me, Clark balanced beautiful, Kate Bush-like art pop arrangements with a dark sense of humor, but on Actor, musically, she plays up her more sinister side. As usual, her lyrics display a keen, razor sharp wit, but they’re paired with harsher sounding instrumentation this time out. Strings swell, distortion billows, quasi-industrial electronic elements clang and clatter, and above it all is Clark, sweetly and serenely delivering her neatly enunciated coos depicting pockets full of dynamite and mouths full of blood. And in spite of the chaos that surrounds her, it’s Clark’s calm demeanor that’s most unsettling.
Of course, Clark’s mysterious charm is also what makes her such an arresting talent. It’s hard not to be charmed by a voice like hers. Likewise, it’s hard not to be stunned by her stunning, complex songs on Actor. After that short, Elfman-esque beginning to “The Strangers,” Clark enters the frame as if telling off a no-good lover (“you showed up with a black eye looking to start a fight…Playboys under your mattress, like I wouldn’t notice“). Yet her refrain of “paint the black hole blacker” seems to suggest only a worsening situation, while the minimal electro beat and acoustic plucks beneath her voice carry a contrastingly upbeat melody. The synths that open “Save Me From What I Want” blare like ambulance sirens, before a dreamy guitar melody and distorted drums lay down a lovely bed for Clark’s character’s frailty: “I’m a wife in watercolors/ I can wash away.”
“The Neighbors” finds Clark depicting a picture-imperfect suburban neighborhood, not unlike one of Burton’s surreal burgs, in which the seedy underbelly is awfully close to the surface. Kids foaming at the mouth, “psychotropic capricorns,” all met with the humorously old-fashioned refrain of “what would the neighbors think?” First single “Actor Out of Work” takes a more straightforward approach in its fuzzy guitar rock, and likewise, Clark delivers a series of acid-tongued retorts—”you’re an actor out of work/ you’re a liar and that’s the truth/ you’re an extra, lost in the scene.” But, of course, she delivers each venomous line with her soft and seductive register while the machines buzz and crash around her. “Black Rainbow” twinkles and sparkles, but remains a relatively simple and beautiful highlight until it escalates into a creeping monster. Strings build and escalate in ominousness, like a giant shadow slowly creeping over an unsuspecting town. And I’m not sure what’s most distressing about it, the crescendo itself, or the fact that it comes in such contrast to the otherwise delicate song.
The lush, pretty pop of “Laughing With a Mouthful of Blood,” by contrast, finds Clark’s lyrics providing the unease. Gentle acoustic riffs dance over more swelling strings, but it’s in the line “all my friends aren’t so friendly/ all my old haunts are haunting me” where the song is overcome with darkness. “Marrow,” meanwhile, recalls Björk in both its space-age orchestration and its destructive industrial rhythms. Clark even sounds a bit like the Icelandic pixie as she sings “H-E-L-P/ help/ me.” Even the serene “The Bed,” with its mention of “daddy’s Smith and Wesson,” and the devastating “the letters stopped unceremoniously in June” in “Just the Same But Brand New” find something sinister beneath an otherwise sweet and enchanting exterior.
Even at Clark’s most unsettling, however, she’s still as enchanting as artists come. On Actor, her charm never lets up. She’s built up a noisier exterior this time around. And she inhabits characters in worlds even more distressing than before. Yet somehow, it all converges immaculately. The women in Clark’s songs may seem like they’re about to come apart at the seams from time to time, but never before has St. Vincent seemed so wonderfully put together.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.