tongue-tied lightning

St. Vincent’s Actor: The Artist as Auteur
July 15, 2010, 5:32 PM
Filed under: music | Tags: , , ,

To begin, a note on the title.  Taken at face value, it may seem a bit redundant as most people would be willing to concede that anyone who writes and performs their own music is in fact the author of that music.  There are a few reasons I chose the title, let’s begin with the most superficial; it sounds good and it feels right.  Two, one could argue, in the spirit of the term’s original conception, that even if someone is performing songs they didn’t write they manipulate them to fit their artistic vision, I would claim this is true of many pop stars and thus the term isn’t completely useless in regards to music.  Third, and most importantly, I think there is a corollary between the way, say, Michelangelo Antonioni communicates his ideas via mise-en-scene and the way Annie Clark communicates her ideas musically on Actor, which is the point of this piece.  Moving on.

St. Vincent’s debut album, Marry Me, was a promising debut.  It has its problems, the first half of the record is noticeably stronger than the latter and it seems to lack of a strong thematic whole.  In interviews Annie has claimed the songs were written over several years at various points in her life.   I think the record belies that, it comes off less as a carefully conceived opus than a portrait of the artist as a young woman, which isn’t to say it’s not an impressive statement of purpose.  It is, it contains several great songs, such as ‘Now, Now’ and ‘Your Lips Are Red’ which has gone on to be a centerpiece of her live shows.

As impressive as it can be there is little on Marry Me that signals the artistic growth she would show on Actor. It isn’t an album that won me over instantly.  My first impression of it was that it was a competent but unexceptional record, I enjoyed it but never got much further than that.  However, like many of my favorite records, it planted a seed in my mind and I found myself returning to it again and again and eventually I started to uncover things in it I’ve grown to love.

What most impresses me about Actor, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, is the way in which Annie Clark weaves the themes and emotions present in the lyrics into the very fabric of the songs.  It stretches beyond composing a sad song as a ballad in a minor key or a happier song in a major key with an upbeat tempo; there are bursts of distorted guitar erupting out of Disneyfied tableaus belying the idea that maybe everything isn’t as cheery as it seems on the surface, the mechanical heartbeat lurking behind the precise riff that defines ‘Marrow’ creates an aura of roboticism and echoes the helplessness the narrator of the song expresses in feeling she’s not completely in control of herself.

It’s this sensibility I’m not sure is present on Marry Me that makes Actor a truly exceptional record.  It’s not unprecedented, certainly classical composition has a history of relating stories and ideas musically, but it’s hard to overstate how rare it is to see this sensibility so fully realized in popular music, which since it’s inception has used the lyric as the primary means of communication.  There were two other albums in 2009 I would consider exceptional Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, I’m not sure either of them work at the same conceptual level.  Certainly there is something to be said for the feeling of disconnection Dave Longstreth’s disjointed melodies create on the latter, a feeling that is also present in his lyrics, and Grizzly Bear’s album may be more satisfying on an emotional level but I don’t feel either of them is as intellectually robust as Actor.

Actor is a fitting title for the record as false fronts and the ability of appearances to deceive seems to be one of the key thematic drives behind it.  From the first song what’s on the surface is questioned and we are asked to question what’s underneath.  There’s also a feeling of anxiety arising from the dissonance between who we are and what we project.  An underlying need to break free and express ourselves while our fears of what others will think induce a form of paralysis.  It’s a feeling that seems more and more relevant and it’s rarely been expressed as viscerally as it is on Actor.

To bring things full circle, there is a cinematic feel to the record.  In interviews Annie has stated that several of the songs were composed while watching her favorite movies on mute.  There are moments when it feels like it could serve as a score to your favorite Disney masterpiece, others that feel more suited to a Kubrick film.  This cinematic air is jokingly brought to light by the title of the last song ‘The Sequel’.  The previous track ‘Just the Same But Brand New’ feels like it should be the end of the album, but then we are treated to a snippet of song that seems to cut out right when it should be building to a climax.  Is this an attempt to whet our appetites for Annie’s next album? Most likely it’s just a clever joke, but I will be looking forward to it with the anticipation I reserve for the films of The Coen Brothers, Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis.  All of them auteurs.


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