Why does brilliance so often offer a dichotomy of two contradicting personas? You won't likely get an answer from Annie Clark, better known as the gentle fierceness behind St. Vincent. She's keen to keep you at arm's length, but whether it's shyness or mania that compels her to shroud her identity, you'll have to decide for yourself. She raises the adage "the meek will inherit the earth" to another standard, being a delicate singer with savage tendencies for distortion and anxiety.
Even after collaborating with Clark on an album, Love This Giant, and its subsequent tour, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne said he doesn't feel he knows her very well.
"We're more relaxed and comfortable around each other, for sure. You could call it privacy, or mystery or whatever . . . but it's nice that there are always surprises, too," Byrne said, speaking to the Village Voice. "Mystery is not a bad thing for a beautiful, talented young woman [or man] to embrace. And she does it without seeming to be standoffish or distant."
It's true: Clark's voice is warm, inviting, even tender — in an art-pop sense. But her half-smile, tousled hair, and razor-edged eyes hint at something unruly beneath the veneer. And when her guitar gashes out at you like a knife, contorted riffs stuccoed with battery acid, you don't even realize where you've been cut.
On tracks like "The Party" and "Cruel," you get the impression Clark is struggling against traditional feminine roles of housewife and mother, trying to appease others who treat her like a piece of furniture. She self-consciously asks, "What would your mother say? / What would your father do?" on "The Neighbors," but you can't quite tell if she's being sarcastic. "Cheerleader" could be a modern version of "The Yellow Wallpaper." But then songs like "Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood" remind you of Clark's calculated madness.
Though most modern female singers are occupied with mock stripteases — and leaving next to nothing to the imagination — Clark tests the tensility of her audience's mind's eye. She leaves her listeners straining to comprehend the bizarre thoughts buzzing inside her. On her self-titled fourth album, Clark further shines a light on her trademark neuroses. "Huey Newton" is an obsessive-compulsive dirge that picks up where 2011's Strange Mercy left off, and "Birth in Reverse" again attacks the strange conventions of womanhood. On "Prince Johnny," she prays to be made into "a real girl," her grasp on her own femininity slightly twisted.
The omnipresent conflict of desire is what draws you back to St. Vincent again and again. Just when you get comfortable with one of her light chamber-pop melodies, Clark turns the screws and delivers jazzy, moody music. She's the sore thumb in every portrait she's painted of herself, the awkward element in a dystopian world but also its last shred of individuality.
Although St. Vincent's struggle often is against a rigid, unpleasant world, it isn't tragic. Here is a poet exploring what is dark without being mopey, what is ugly with exquisite beauty.
"I just do [it] because [it] feels very natural, and [it's] what's going on in my brain, so of course [it] would manifest itself in the music," Clark told NPR in February. "Some things that people even find ugly or harsh don't register to me as ugly or harsh — I'm just, like, 'Oh, that's beautiful!' You know, it's like people — just these weird petri dishes of emotion and reason and all this."