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A St. Vincent Primer

A Crash Course On St. Vincent’s Slow-Building Career

On October 17, 2017

Annie Clark has been performing under the name St. Vincent for over 10 years, starting well before the release of Masseduction. Because of this, it feels like Clark’s been around for an impossibly long time. She’s been bobbing in and out of the mainstream, eventually acquiring a Grammy for her 2014 self-titled release. She told i-D, “For me, any success has been kind of slow and steady.” Her career feels intricate, yet stable—less of a sweeping, break-neck come-up than a consistent sustainable build.

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After dropping out of Berklee and moving to New York, she ran out of money, moved back home to Texas, and joined the Polyphonic Spree. Before she joined them, she had already started working on her first album Marry Me. She finished the album while touring with the Spree, and by the time she started touring with Sufjan Stevens a while later, she had enough material to open for him. While opening a show in London, she got a record deal with Beggars Banquet, and thus began the recording career of St. Vincent.

The slow, sure come-up of St. Vincent comes down to the most consistent aspect of her 10 years in the spotlight: the quality of her music. Conceptually, lyrically, and musically, every St. Vincent record is phenomenal. There’s not a gimmick or farce or press scandal, just solid, constant artistic growth. With the diligence, growth, and talent of someone like Clark, 10 years is enough to accumulate a wealth of material, so whether you’re new to St. Vincent or looking to revisit Marry Me like an old friend, here’s a walk through a catalogue worth visiting (or revisiting. Again. Every day.)

Marry Me (2007)

The contrast between Masseduction and Marry Me is so striking that listening to it, you start to feel nostalgic for her. She told Uncut in 2015 she doesn’t even think she owns a copy of the album: “I think I have a file somewhere, but it's on a laptop that has died. I haven't heard it in years. Listening back to your old records feels a little like looking at a high-school yearbook." Despite Annie’s own aversion, it’s a sweet and gorgeous listen that’s aged exceptionally. Across her whole discography, her vocals walk the fine balance a soft glide and engine-level power, and on this album, they lend themselves perfectly to the stunning jazz undertones in songs like (“Human Racing”)[] and “All My Stars Are Aligned.” Oh, and that classic St. Vincent brand of dark comedy camp? Despite the album’s doe-eyed exterior, it’s still there, of course, especially on tracks like “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and “What Me Worry.” And c’mon, how could you not fall in love in this video of Annie playing “Marry Me” alongside a violin in a camper?

Actor (2009)

Clark told Billboard she was inspired by her love for film scores, and there’s an obvious cinematic quality that infuses this album with more whimsical grandeur than her others. Instead of writing on guitar or piano, she used Garage Band to DIY engineer intricate, fantastical arrangements. It’s here, we start to see budding diligent artistic cohesion that St. Vincent’s become know for more prominently. The head-spinning “Alice In Wonderland” quality to tracks like “Neighbors,” “The Party” and “Save Me From What I Want” and the cheery grit of “Actor Out Of Work” and “Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood” bridge the gap between the still-presence innocence of Marry Me and more raw, risky artistic moves on later albums.

Strange Mercy (2011)

St. Vincent’s development has been linear from the start, but on Strange Mercy, she honed in her voice—both literally and as an artist—and took a step down a path that more obviously leads to Masseduction. Her penchant for the musically cinematic took a step toward theater; she later labeled the album’s sound “Housewife on Pills.” A lean into the conceptual and the mouth-watering sexual tension on “Chloe In The Afternoon” and “Surgeon” is a glimmer of what she’d amplify exponentially on her next two solo albums, with a distinct turn into darker sounds and themes. She wrote the album after her father was convicted in 2010 of defrauding investors in a penny-stock scheme and sentenced to 12 years in prison. She never discussed this publically, but when asked by The New Yorker about it this year, she replied, “I wrote a whole album about it,” referring to Strange Mercy. On this album, we also see a more firm grasp toward the aesthetic and visual elements now so essential to her art. Videos for “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” are a stunning look into her instincts as an art director. Around this album, St. Vincent’s critical and public acclaim began to accelerate, and Pitchfork later recognized it on their list “The 100 Best Albums of the Decade So Far.”

Love This Giant (2012)

Love this Giant was written and recorded by Clark and David Byrne over the course of several years. She later referred to it as Beauty and the Beast, an odd comparison at first, but one that strangely fit. Their combined fascination of everyday life’s cross section with absurdities and performance, and the philosophical questions derived from it, makes for a literary, and somewhat sociological, drama and lots of strange characters. Its audible experimentation is as theatrical as its themes, and range from a prominent, booming brass section and high percussion. In fact it’s best read like a score. With all its exploration of the performative, and the performative qualities of the album itself, the album’s peak presentation is live, or combined with the video visuals for “Who.”

St. Vincent (2014)

Clark uped the ante here with bone-chilling, burn-your-eyebrows-off intensity at both the musical and artistic level. And, in terms of mainstream recognition, it paid off: She won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 2015, making St. Vincent only the second female solo artist to win the award since its inception in 1991. For lack of a better words, St. Vincent is brilliant and batshit. On her Digital Witness tour, she flailed, dove, and threw herself into near self-destruction, which is telling of the kind of performance to which these tracks lend themself. Both frazzled and geometric, Clark found a balance between rigidity and insanity. Conceptually, she called the album, “near-future cult leader,” and her dedication to this aesthetic put her overall cohesion into high-gear. The opening track “Rattlesnake,” about her naked encounter with a rattlesnake while wandering through a desert, is full of the controlled, seizing panic that so successfully strings itself throughout St. Vincent and give the best stage for St. Vincent’s impossible-level shredding. Even in the “quieter moments” like “I Prefer Your Love” or “Prince Johnny” manage to sustain the flashy energy of this album.

Is diving into St. Vincent’s full discography too daunting? Well, we got you: Here’s a playlist of choice jams:

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Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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