A Musical Performance
If Actor isn't a concept album about the current human condition —in which the forever-online, always-documented mode of modern life has turned people into perpetual performers, acting their days away— it's, at the very least, a confession of what Annie Clark feels like.
The aw-shucks, jazz-chops, fretboard-shredding multi-instrumentalist spent enough time treading the boards for the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, before she went solo, to learn about putting on a show. So, even if St. Vincent found her, more often than not, on her lonesome on stage, a performance was to be delivered; even if that meant turning her own personality —sweet little Annie with the sour sense of humor— into a stage persona.
After three years of acting out the role of St. Vincent, Clark is getting good at playing her part, and even better at playing her music. All whilst not buying the myth, and embracing the delusional mind-state of the actor. For her second album —one far superior to 2007's patchy, strained Marry Me— Clark explores the notion of the Actor, as embodiment of the artistic process herself.
Well, at least in a roundabout way. It certainly has its roots in theatricality: its cover a mock-up of the dead-eyed 'headshot' desperately peddled by the wannabe actors; its music, according to Clark, heavily in debt to the scores of old Disney cartoons, French new-wave movies, and MGM musicals. If the lyrics are, as Clark claims, a singular study, they're certainly obtuse enough to remain open to interpretation.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
For a listener, what this all really means is: strings. Or orchestration in general. Seemingly tacked onto the end, the 115 second pseudo-outro "Sequel" is, on closer inspection, a piece of deft composition, with sweeping strings tilting slyly towards atonalism, french horn stepping deftly like deer hooves through the undergrowth, woodwinds arriving at odd intervals whilst an acoustic guitar wonders far in the distance. Clark's voice, sounding purer than ever, sits atop the arrangement gently, as if she's singing a lullaby; a serenade to ease her record to a gentle close. Of course, if you listen closely to what she's singing, you can hear Clark undercutting the simple notion of 'beauty,' slurring "bodies like wrecking balls f**k/f**k with dynamite"; whispering the song's punchline like a tender secret.
The rest of the album is just as grandiose, complex, and quietly incongruous, even if Clark is more fond of bombast than subtlety. "Actor out of Work" is relentless, this massive wall of metallic sound thrusting luridly towards the listener. "Marrow" comes off like a song from Goldfrapp's 'glam' period; frantic and desperate. "Black Rainbow" unfolds in metronomic organ stabs, flowers in a cascade of polytonal woodwinds, then explodes in a mess of distortion, hot guitar licks, and Bernard Herrmann-esque strings, escalating in pitch until it ends at roughly the same timbre as a kettle's whistle. Evoking the sounds of classic thrillers, Clark succeeds in ratcheting up the tension; a large part of Actor leaving the listener feeling a little bit easy.
The New Me, the Old You
Me, I prefer it the other way; when it feels as if Clark is playing up to her nice, polite stage persona with sweet, gentle music, only to reveal a sardonic sense of humor and a sense of sly compositional daring as things swing and sway. Or, even better, there's "Just the Same But Brand New," a straight-up beautiful song about the grand delusion of self-reinvention.
Having just authored a second album that largely builds off her preceding work, it'll be interesting to see if that's where Clark, as St. Vincent, turns next. For nothing draws attention to the artifice of performance —nothing says 'acting'— like grand reinvention.
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: 5 May 2009