St. Vincent: “Actor”

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Two young girls, unable to sleep, climb beneath their bed and go into hiding. Why? The usual reason: Strange shadows and things that go bump in the night. In fact, this particular evening is particularly frightful, so they seek a bit of extra protection in the cold steel arms of their “daddy Smith and Wesson.” Before you know it, there’s only one thing they lack: A piece of chalk to outline the body of their fallen foe.

That’s the basic gist of “The Bed,” one of eleven short narratives set to music by Annie Clark for her second recording, Actor, and if it sounds a bit like the kind of dark, violent fairy tale Disney might have made had they not strayed so far from their Grimm roots, well, that’s a pretty fair take on the album as a whole. Clark, once again recording as St. Vincent, follows her promising debut, Marry Me, with an album that’s bigger, badder, darker, denser– and altogether uncompromising. Better make room for one more under that bed; this time, Clark goes straight for the jugular.

But of course I’m exaggerating. It’s not for nothing that Clark named the album Actor, for she makes pop music that’s clearly informed by the stage. She cut her teeth as a back-up singer for the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, but her own music lacks the preciousness and affectations that sometimes make the work of those two artists a shade cutesy or twee. Instead, she brings to her music the same kind of instinct that any great thespian must have– she’s always one step ahead of her audience, knowing what they expect and also how to twist those expectations just enough to keep ’em guessing without going so far as to lose the plot.

In other words, Actor is a study in subversion, though that makes it sound a bit more sinister than it actually is. Clark brings to her music a sense of play and a love of adventure, but it’s also clear that she wants her music to be enjoyed. This isn’t experimentation at the risk of alienation; actually, you’d have to go back to Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs for an album that colored outside the lines so much but remained accessible. Again, chalk it up to Clark’s dramatic roots, for she knows how to combine volatile elements to create intimacy, longing, or sheer, dizzying excitement. She weds soundtrack music and showtune theatrics to baroque arrangements and dark electric-guitar squall, basing the whole thing in pop convention, if only to demonstrate how she bends it at will. The resulting sound is at once strange and familiar, unexpected but never unnatural. (Which probably explains why critics tend to describe her sound using the abstract language of dreams– though “happy nightmares” almost seems to fit better.)

Clark sings in a measured, controlled cadence that suggests a history in musical theater– or at least the glee club– but she tells her tales with the nuance of a skilled raconteur. Most of these songs are about women trying to escape from the everyday– be it lust, longing, or simply the mundane of daily living. “Save Me from What I Want” is a tipsy take on addiction– or perhaps good old-fashioned carnal desire– and “The Strangers” taps out a creepy sketch of an all-engulfing obsession. The record’s best song is “Actor Out of Work,” in which Clark delivers a litany of come-ons and put-downs against a backdrop of squealing guitar fuzz; it’s a relationship story so complex, it’s a wonder she was able to cram it into just two minutes.

Some of Clark’s characters seem to find hope and some of them don’t, but the surreal shifts in the music suggest the inbreaking of the sublime into a gray world. And that’s what makes this music not just fascinating, but ultimately life-affirming. The singer herself is joyfully inventive and drunk on melody, sounding positively giddy even as she boldly establishes her own voice; and with music so rich in color and imagination, the listener is likely to feel the same and then some.

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