Rising Star

Is Bigger Better for St. Vincent?

Her striking new, vinyl-only single once again confirms St. Vincent's idiosyncratic talent. But as her audience broadens, you have to wonder, is the big-time toxic to her art?

Burak Cingi/Redferns via Getty

You remember that girl, the one who was so quirky and talented. She was not Zooey Deschanel. She had depth and darkness along with her zaniness. She seemed to create her own world and you desperately wanted to be part of it. At first you didn’t know how to approach her. You had imagined talking to her countless times, usually when you couldn’t sleep. You were certain that she was smarter than you, lovelier than you, more interesting than you. Eventually, though, you somehow made a connection. You weren’t sure if she was laughing at your jokes or if she was just being ironic, or, worse, polite.

Then, finally, you seemed to make an impact, and in a good way. You now had jokes in common, passions, dreams, and that you had a weirdness of your own that she actually wanted to understand. You were both in on the joke. You had hit the sweet spot. You beamed with delight as she spread her creativity around, and it grew and swirled and replicated itself, like concentric circles. You were thrilled to see this magnificent woman break out of this one horse town. This was a dream come true, yet it was still scary.

If the whole world got in on your own private wacky world, would you still play a part of it, or would you become, like everyone else, an audience? Would she continue to contain multitudes while you were just still you, forced to face your own limitations while her genius kept growing and expanding? It was nothing personal. Like the Scarlett Johansson-voiced operating system in Her, she just became too expansive for you. Now you were part of the audience, and there was nothing you could do about it. Telling people that you knew her when would just be pathetic. You’d have your stories, sure, but you’d just be another starfucker, and in the past tense. It hurts, no doubt, but you kept watching. Your spectatorship would be a form of martyrdom.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, St. Vincent. In celebration of the darkest of Black Fridays, she just released a new single, “Pietà.” The drumbeat and synth bass are as insistent as they are ominous. Whatever you think from the song’s title, it’s the opposite:

Baptized in the shallow end Of a Holiday Inn Limbs dangled over my Pa Like an inverse Pietà

This is the opposite of Michelangelo, sort of. There’s something sublime and numinous to worship and, as in St. Peter’s, the admission is, VIPs excepted, non-negotiable. Worshipping is allowed, even expected. But this is a Pietà who is not a virgin. This is an inverse Pietà, and something of a sexual anarchist; she ardently refuses to be oriented in an orientation. St. Vincent’s real name is Annie Clark, but her band, even when she plays solo, is St. Vincent, which, given her anti-clerical leanings, is more of a tribute to the Greenwich Village hospital (now defunct and demolished) where Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning than any actual saint. Madonna’s real name is Madonna, just as Prince’s real name is Prince. Annie Clark anointed herself, inspired by a Nick Cave line: “And Dylan Thomas died / Drunk in St. Vincent’s Hospital.” “That’s me,” she told The New York Times, “the place where poetry comes to die.” St. Vincent, make no mistake, is as fallen as the rest of us.

Like me, she is from Dallas. And like me, she could fool Henry Higgins; her Big D affect is all but indecipherable unless it’s ironic—or when she’s playing to the crowd at Austin City Limits, all wrapped in the performer’s calculation. She did three years at the Berklee College of Music, which you can hear in her glorious arrangements or when she shreds the guitar with virtuosic clangor. Of course, it’s cooler that she dropped out after she got all the chops she needed. She can scale octaves and break your heart with her voice. She claims to not even own a copy of her Marry Me (2007), her first album released on the indie label Beggar’s Banquet, but she seemed to emerge fully formed. The sounds are less mechanical and more lush, more concert hall than dance floor. Her writing, even from the beginning, was uncanny in its wit, its absurdity, and a personality you wanted to get to know better, with songs like “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and “Your Lips are Red,” an ode to sexual indeterminacy; the final refrain is “Your skin’s so fair, it’s not fair,” which could be comparing complexion with a stunning woman or a pretty boy. Listeners who have followed her since her debut could hear her intricate woodwind arrangements (all hers) and an ability to make a guitar scream, wail, cry, and moan with pleasure. Her distinctive shredding can also sound very disturbed, and the more disturbed, the better.

She moved on to the bigger indie label 4AD, and her recent eponymous album was released earlier this year on Republic, a subsidiary of Universal, and you can hear her making her gestures larger, playing to the back of an ever expanding stage. The album begins with a surreal take on an actual experience of getting buck naked in the West Texas woods and then running ass wild from a rattlesnake. “Huey Newton” was written on Ambien, giving props to the Black Power icon while coining the neologism “fuckless.” When she emerged as recording artist, she looked like an almost earnest graduate student, a kind of brainy beauty who didn’t wear much makeup (even on album covers), and who, like Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, touched your perfect body with her mind. Her stage patter was off the cuff, directed to friends, or trying to make new ones, with the kind of self-effacing jokes you would hear from someone you know. But moving to the bigger stage requires bigger moves, at least in the post-Gaga universe, although I’d like to believe that she takes cues from no one but herself. She recently collaborated with David Byrne on Love this Giant, a tremendous work for both of them, which perhaps made her think about how to take her self-invention to the bigger stage. When she toured the album with the former head of the Talking Heads—someone she called “the coolest person on the planet”—she became more choreographed. She found a way to make little kitten steps to the microphone in unison with the music. She played Austin City Limits in October.

I have to admit that while I was watching this, I was cheering her on, but with a little uneasiness. Was that lipstick deliberately smeared? Like Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she’s going through hair phases, which is now shades of blue, pink, and some shades of grey (the result of bottle blonde going awry). But what really worried me was when, in the middle of “Your Lips Are Red,” she started climbing the rafters, like the hippies in Woodstock, except those hippies were on acid! This was more calculated. Freed from her guitar, but wearing counterintuitive pumps, she leaned back like a trapeze artist. A guy wearing pink appeared to be spotting her, but I was worried that he could have gotten impaled by those Stiletto heels. The crowd went berserk. I felt a mild panic. Everything worked out. Amidst all the turbulence, St.Vincent will not sink. She’s performing stunts like this all over the place, and she’s adding “fuck” or “fucking” to various lyrics. At one point, in a lyric from “Actor Out of Work,” after singing “I think I’m mad,” she added, “You know I’m fucking mad!”

Do you have to be fucking mad to follow up Gaga and her meat dress? The truth is that Gaga is a talented singer, a brilliant singer, and a genius self-marketer (in the Andy Warhol sense), but her material, which she writes, is pretty thin, repeating phrases like “Poker Face” ad infinitum. St. Vincent’s material is the star of the show, although now she’s running to keep up with it to get some more play in an ever-shrinking industry. And if she doesn’t keep up with it, perhaps there’s a danger. The audience will move on to something else, and she will remember a time of real connection, and if the times move on without her, it’s a slippery slope to reality TV. She has a crush, too, and that crush is on the masses. How long will the dance last? What memories will be cherished? How close to the edge does she have to push herself? Will her muse keep pushing the public forward? She started out as a quirky brunette with a dream, a girl from Dallas who wanted us to love her. She called her most recent record a funeral you can dance to. Her new single, “Pieta,” is something you can worship and blaspheme at the same time. The B side, “Sparrow,” is about a little bird that has eyes watching it, then it doesn’t. (“No eyes are on the sparrow, eyes are on the sparrow / He is singing anyway.”) She will not be stopped.

At Austin City Limits, St. Vincent was testing limits of her own in this introduction to “Marrow”:

Once when you were very, very small, you decided to build a fire with that Texas sun, with that perfect, grandiose Texas sky. And you waited nine hours for that thing to finally, finally burn, and when it did, you felt like a magician, you felt like a sorcerer, you felt like a god. And suddenly you were in the throes of both creation and destruction. And you found yourself afraid, but more than afraid, you found yourself incredibly curious. And you just waited. And you thought, “Oh, no. I’ll stomp it out now.” Oh, it’s getting bigger! “I’ll stomp it out now.” Oh, no, it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger until you sat like this [arms crossed] with a shit eating grin on your face watching the entire neighborhood burn down.

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This is surely a metaphor for something, just like it was when she named her performing self St. Vincent or when she named her latest single after an inverse Pietà. She’s not advocating actual arson. But she is, in her way, holding a mirror up to nature, and objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear. Annie Clark’s creation is getting stronger and stronger, and she is sharing that little chill up her spine just contemplating the kind of damage she could do. Happy record store day, happy shopping. Here is where poetry comes to die. Here is a soundtrack for the end of the world.