In which indie/art pop’s goddess loses some of her loveable quirk by ironically adding more of it. Her dying her hair white – though she still looks gorge – is sadly analogous to the record as a whole. She sounds quirky for the sake ofbeing quirky. The opening line of first single “Birth in Reverse” is “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate” and oh, the shock value! Her live show now features choreography that detracts from the overall experience instead of adding to it, as say, Stop Making Sense did. Speaking of, she yelps a lot more here than ever, sounding like someone who wants to be David Byrne instead of being herself (which worked out for her in the past); ironic, because she made a big deal about trying to sound like herself. Or, to put it another way and to make clear why her major record debut is a disappointment, She’s an outlier on mainstreet/stream in nearly every way, through her unorthodoxies […], her visual presentation, and her lyrical preoccupations; in short, she’s found a way to straddle in and out, and St. Vincent seemed primed to be a big coming out party, where instead of existing on the fringe of the zeitgeist, she became closer to the center of the conversation, someone who influences, not just entertains. But there’s a ghost in the architecture here, because St. Vincentnever adds up to being the album it feels like it should be; this is by far her least fascinating (unsettling, enigmatic, spontaneous) record, even if the surface pleasures are the greatest.” Thanks, tinymixtapes’ Alex Griffin.
Those surface pleasures: lead single “Birth in Reverse” is particularly fookin’ fantastic. One of those rare songs that are simultaneously twitchy and muscular. The gaspy way she sings the final instance of the title’s words lends more power when she sings “AmeriKAHHHHHH!”, launching into the atmosphere and lingering there before she turns her guitar into a chainsaw. Laugh all you want about Pitchfork‘s Lindsay Zoladz’s description of it, but she’s on the nose here when she describes St. Vincent’s guitar solos as “splattering, abrupt, radioactive.” Second single “Prince Johnny” is completely different, some of her most poignant lyrics on the album sung and understood clearly over the bed of washed out backing vocals and a trip-hoppish beat; the title is a reference to Prince John who was epileptic and possibly autistic, making the chorused “Saw you pray to all / To make you a real boy” much more touching (as if it weren’t already; the song can be about anyone who isn’t comfortable with themselves, so basically everyone). “Huey Newton” has a lovely bit at the 1:50 mark where Annie Clark sings “Hale-Bopp, Hail Mary, Hail Hagia Sophia / Oh, it was a lonely, lonely winter,” climbing higher and higher until you don’t think she can get higher anymore, and then she does!
But again, “surface” pleasures – this isn’t a record that warrants additional listens like her previous ones, not to mention the fact that all those examples came from the album’s opening half. And some of those aforementioned songs aren’t perfect. The 1:47 mark of “Prince Johnny”, where the choir backdrop disappears for just a moment sounds like a splicing error more than anything else; the climax of “Huey Newton” fails to catch fire, though it tries, it really does. I’m also really on the fence about third single “Digital Witness”; all I know is in a couple of months’ time, Taylor Swift will build a catchier song out of the same components in “Shake It Off”; sassy singing over a brassy bed. Are we here for its anti-Instragram lyrics? Not likely. Alex Griffin again: “as she moves away from fiction and playing with reality toward Statements (and there are a few sneaking around here), she seems to have less and less to say, fumbling with the outlines of vaguer generalities […] her confessional style isn’t detailed or strong enough to be convincing.” And even if you do enjoy “Digital Witness,” can we admit that it was a bad move to put all three of this album’s singles back-to-back-to-back?
On the rest: the two ballads, “I Prefer Your Love,” with the album’s sharpest lyric as its hook, and closer “Severed Crossed Fingers,” containing the only melody on the second half, are okay. But any points she gets for them are lost for “Bring Me Your Loves,” her most grating song to date, and “Every Tear Disappears,” which sounds like “Birth in Reverse” with its guitar part castrated. And for all the talk of her supposed growth, I don’t hear it. Instead, I hear recycling old ideas: oscillating vocals for hooks (compare “Cruel” to “Prince Johnny”) and out-of-nowhere codas (compare “Northern Lights” to “Birth in Reverse”) and I hear the same clunky rhythms, something particularly troubling for someone so enamored with funk.