St. Vincent – Actor (2009)
Bottom Line Up Front: This is a 4 out of 5 stars album that you’re going to want to check out. It’s an interesting mix of the indie, pop and classical genres with a very high replay value due to enigmatic lyrics.
Artist Background: The woman behind St.Vincent is Annie Clark. She dropped out of Berklee College of Music after 3 years so she could start her professional career. It seemed to be a smart move on her part because she is an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist and a highly skilled composer.
Album Background: The album, Actor, is described as indie pop/baroque pop. It runs about 40 minutes with 11 tracks. Clark wrote it while watching lots of movies including many Disney films. The songs actually came from soundtracks she imagined for scenes from the movies she watched. She would then add the lyrics for it. The album was well received by many critics and made quite a few end of the year lists.
Favorite Track: My favorite track is The Bed. It’s the 8th track on the album and is 3 minutes and 43 seconds long. St. Vincent’s use of contrasting ideas and sounds is prevalent throughout the album. I think she does a particularly good job on this track where she combines the viewpoint of young children with gun violence. The track begins with a pair of siblings hiding underneath one of their beds with their “dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson” ready to shoot and kill monsters. It’s a rather disturbing image but the track itself is very soft and laid back with her soothing voice and a guitar being gently picked. Further playing off the innocence of children to enhance the contradictions, many of the lyrics make references to common gun expressions includings “the whites of their eyes” which was made famous at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 and “put your hands up” and “stop or I’ll shoot” which have probably been said at least once in every cop show ever made. This is just one example of where St. Vincent is masterful in mixing ingredients that don’t normally belong together to give the listener something new and delicious.
- Juxtaposition Both in her music and lyrics, Annie creates contrasts that are often quite jarring to the listener. In the opening track, The Strangers, after nearly 2 and a half minutes of her beautiful voice painting the black hole blacker and luscious multi-layered instrumentation, a blaring distorted guitar rips into the music. These contrasts only further enhance the qualities of the dissimilar approaches and strengthens her music overall.
- Mystery Even though I’ve listened to this album countless times over the past week, I’ve had a hard time actually deciphering what the lyrics mean. And this is a great thing. I love lyrics like this. I love it when they are very specific yet open to interpretation for those willing to dig into them. Actor would probably end up on my Desert Island list because of this.
- Tension In Black Rainbow, there is a wonderful crescendo that builds slowly and patiently using violins and distorted guitars. At some point, you’re really not sure if it’s ever going to come to a climax but eventually it collapses and you can finally start breathing again. It’s relentless attack reminds me of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) by The Beatles.
- Clockwork There is a lot of repetition in this album that works quite well. Multiple times, St. Vincent will switch between a phrase and a lyric like in The Strangers or alternate with sound processing like in Laughing with a Mouth of Blood. At other times, the instruments feel more like I’m listening to the rhythmic ticking of a clock more than anything such as in Marrow.
- Variation There isn’t a huge amount of variety between songs even if each song is well-crafted. Sometimes the tempo is mixed up to give it an almost dance song quality such as in Actor Out of Work. But I still feel the tracks on the album blend together more than I would like. This might be a side effect of the way the album was put together by starting out as mini-soundtracks for individual scenes from movies.
In Conclusion: Annie obviously put a lot of thought into the music and I seriously doubt that there is a word or note that wasn’t carefully dissected before it was left in its final resting place. Actor is exactly what it should be. And you’ll most likely notice more and more little details each time you listen to it such as the silence used in The Bed or the wonderfully slow build up in Just the Same But Brand New.