St. Vincent’s new album MASSEDUCTION came out last Friday and, in short, it’s great. (Expect a full review sometime soon…) In the build-up to its release, I decided to go back over the artist’s older releases and was struck by just how good they all are. I’ve always thought of St. Vincent/Annie Clark as a great artist, but revisiting those albums reminded me just how great she is.
As an outlet for gushing about Clark’s work a little bit, I thought I’d put together a post detailing the best songs to start with for anyone looking to get into St. Vincent. Her back catalogue isn’t exactly huge (five solo albums and a collaboration album with David Byrne) but it can sometimes be hard to know where to start when listening to someone for the first time. St. Vincent’s discography, as you’d expect, is best listened to in chronological order starting with her first album Marry Me but these ten songs should hopefully offer a great overview of her sound as an artist. They’re not necessarily my favourite St. Vincent songs, more the ones that best sum up what she’s all about.
I’ve also refrained from including any songs from MASSEDUCTION, simply because of how new it is. Besides, I’ll be talking about the album in-depth soon anyway… So, let’s get to it.
‘Now Now’ (from Marry Me)
Okay; maybe the first song from the first album is a bit of an obvious one to start with, but I found it impossible to miss this one off. Compared with St. Vincent’s later work, most of the material on Marry Me is pretty straight-forward – ‘Now Now’ included. It definitely feels like slightly more of a typical singer-songwriter release. That said, there are still signs of Clark’s love of strangeness and messing with expectations on the album and in the track. The chanting child-like backing vocals, the off-key sounding keyboard, the flickers of menace in Clark’s vocal delivery… Not to mention the fantastic guitar freak-out at the end of the song. It’s a great track that hints St. Vincent isn’t as straight-forward as the innocent-looking album artwork might suggest…
‘Your Lips Are Red’ (from Marry Me)
For a first album, Marry Me is incredibly consistent. I could make an argument for just about any of its songs having a place on this list… but none more so than ‘Your Lips Are Red’. The song has gone on to become St. Vincent’s go-to set closer and it’s not hard to see why. The track oozes with tension, thanks to some particularly ominous strings and unnerving piano key jabs. Clark’s vocals are also worth mentioning. As I said, there were flickers of menace on ‘Now Now’, but with ‘Your Lips Are Red’ it feels like Clark might explode at any second. And just as it seems like that explosion might take place, the instruments lighten, the vocals soften and the song progresses to an almost dreamy state. A real album stand-out.
‘Actor Out Of Work’ (from Actor)
Actor feels like a pretty natural progression from Marry Me, continuing to blend soft sounds with aggressive ones in a way that shouldn’t work but somehow does. It’s also more ambitious and more diverse, with Clark trying out a number of different styles as shown by ‘Actor Out Of Work’. At only two minutes long, the song doesn’t waste any time – driven by a propulsive drumbeat and a fantastically glitchy guitar. Though it moves quickly, there’s a lot going on; it’s easy to overlook the cleverness of Clark’s lyrics as well as the many great instrumental touches. Part of me wishes it was longer, but then again its brevity is what makes it so good.
‘Marrow’ (from Actor)
No other track on Actor demonstrates how well Clark is at bringing gentle and clean instruments together with heavy and distorted ones. The song opens fluttery and soft – resembling the soundtrack to a Disney film – before Clark’s vocals darken the tone. The song’s lyrics are unsettling as it is (‘Muscle connects to the bone / And bone to the ire and marrow’) and Clark’s delivery just intensifies things. Things eventually blow up on the chorus when Annie’s guitar, chugging in the background in the song’s opening, bursts out in all its distorted glory. It sounds downright ugly, but somehow St. Vincent makes it work.
‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ (from Strange Mercy)
The opener to St. Vincent’s third album sets the tone perfectly. Gone are the soft acoustic instruments that dominated much of Clark’s last two albums, ditched in favour of alien-sounding synths and sharp drum machine beats. In many ways, Strange Mercy feels like St. Vincent coming into her own – she knows what sound she wants and she knows how to get it. ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ somehow manages to be unsettling and strangely sexy at the same time, with Clark singing of black pearls and horse-hair whips. Though it’s not hard to work out what’s being sung about, there’s a beautiful vagueness and languidness to the lyrics that helps the song sound unlike anything else.
‘Cruel’ (from Strange Mercy)
If there’s one consistent theme throughout St. Vincent’s discography, it’s the idea of the outsider. Many of the artist’s best songs sing in favour of fighting against the social norm and society’s standards. You can see this pretty clearly on Marry Me’s title track, in which Clark touches on matrimony in a sarcastic tone (‘Marry me, John, I’ll be so good to you / You won’t realise I’m gone’) and ‘Cruel’ in many ways feels like that song’s sequel. On the opening she sings, ‘Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?’, touching on the way that women are objectified by society, being told that becoming a wife and mother is the only thing they can aspire for. As the song’s chorus puts it best: ‘How could they be so casually cruel?’
‘Surgeon’ (from Strange Mercy)
Another standout from Strange Mercy, ‘Surgeon’ again addresses the idea of the outsider. The song is based around a quote from Marilyn Manson’s diary which also serves as its hook (‘Best finest surgeon, come cut me open’). The lyric is uncomfortable by itself, but Clark’s calm then panicked delivery and the woozy synths in the background (almost replicating the feeling of being ‘put under’) just make things all the more unsettling. The quote connects Clark to Manson, with her identifying herself as a freak or anomaly – something to be cut open, dissected and examined.
‘Who’ (from Love This Giant)
In relation to the rest of Annie Clark’s discography, Love This Giant feels like a bit of a detour. A collaboration with legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, the album takes things in a different, almost jazzy direction. Clark’s signature guitar is also nowhere to be found. Despite this, the album is still worth checking out – lead single ‘Who’ in particular. Though straight-forward by St. Vincent standards, the song is infectiously fun, focusing on the interplay between Byrne and Clark’s vocals. And come on, it’s Annie Clark and David Byrne – how can you not love it?
‘Digital Witness’ (from St. Vincent)
The fact that St. Vincent’s fourth album is self-titled really says it all; this is St. Vincent’s sound without any moderation or compromise – none of the weirdness held back. Just like on Strange Mercy, Clark is fully confident in her sound here, leading to some truly great tracks like ‘Digital Witness’. The song, St. Vincent’s biggest hit to date, carries over some of the brass instruments from Love This Giant, using them to create an alien atmosphere rather than a jazzy one. The lyrics are also some of the artist’s best, with Clark labelling television viewers as ‘digital witnesses’ – addressing the strangeness of how TV allows us to feel connected and involved in events that have nothing to do with us. ‘Digital Witness’ demonstrates how St. Vincent, with all her strangeness, can be incredibly poppy and accessible as well.
‘I Prefer Your Love’ (from St. Vincent)
Through these songs, I’ve painted Clark as someone who excels at strangeness – exploring sounds and ideas that other artists might not touch… But as this track shows, she’s also incredibly good at writing songs that are beautiful in a much more simple and pure way. Written for her mother, ‘I Prefer Your Love’ uses St. Vincent’s usual instrumental palette to create a gentle mood rather than an aggressive one, with lyrics that are straight-forwardly moving rather than clever: ‘All the good in me is because of you’. It strips back Clark’s St. Vincent persona in a way, being an incredibly personal moment. It’s a real album highlight, demonstrating her fantastic range as an artist.
Give these songs a listen through the playlist below, and be sure to look out for a review of St. Vincent’s new album sometime soon…