Rafy Hay considers whether Annie Clark’s fame has made her music unrelatable
St. Vincent has a good claim to being the best popular musician of this generation. Her musical inventiveness has given us ten years of perfect albums; her vocal virtuosity and scorching guitar solos make her live shows mesmerising events, and her lyrics are wittier than anybody’s since Bob Dylan. Even David Bowie (to whom she is constantly compared) never had a line as good as: “Let’s do what Mary and Joseph did… without the kid.”
Annie Clark’s rise from indie cult figure to the cusp of global stardom can be seen in her records. In her career since 2007 we can trace the development of lyrical themes ranging from love, independence and identity (‘Now Now’), to the great neuroses of the modern world (‘Digital Witness’). Again, if there’s an artist she’s most similar to it would be Dylan rather than Bowie: her songs speak incisively and intelligently about life today through the lens of a real person’s experiences.
However, off the back of her live show at Brixton, which divided fans along several lines, and the release of new album MASSEDUCTION, questions are starting to be asked. Has fame changed Annie Clark to the point that we can no longer relate to her? The private life of the performer behind the St. Vincent alter ego became less than private when she dated model Cara Delevingne for a year, separating in 2016.
St. Vincent’s previously open-ended lyrics, which were intimate and personal but onto which listeners could project their own lives, are now trawled through by columnists and fans for clues about Clark’s experiences. Clark herself has admitted the same, saying: “Strange Mercy was Housewives on Pills. St. Vincent was Near-Future Cult Leader. MASSEDUCTION is different, it’s pretty first person. You can’t fact-check it, but if you want to know about my life, listen to this record.”
On paper, none of St. Vincent’s best qualities have been lost in MASSEDUCTION – her music still deals with the same issues of ‘love interests and the state of the world’, often within the same song – but for me there’s now a distance which didn’t exist before. ‘Los Ageless’ is the perfect example. The song’s sharp lyrics and guitar playing remind us of the old St. Vincent, but the subject matter now seems distant and stamped with a definite time and place.
Where previously fans would see themselves in the music, now we see only Annie Clark.
This is reflected in the set design at her shows. Older songs and fan favourites are performed alone in a curtained corner set up on stage, the strobes and lighting accentuating rather than distracting from St. Vincent’s electric performance. Songs from MASSEDUCTION, on the other hand, are played on a podium, further from the audience, with huge screens projecting stylish, glitchy sequences. The feeling of isolation and distance is palpable, and while that might accurately reflect the state of Annie Clark’s mind as someone thrown in at the deep end of celebrity, it’s a barrier to sympathy.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with music that tells a definite story, that deals with a defined social setting or geographical area – if not, where would Kendrick Lamar (the other lyrical titan of today’s music scene) be? The thing is that St. Vincent’s fans have gathered to her for the way her music accurately expresses universal truths about the human experience, so to take away some of that universality means they might end up disappointed.
There’s a balance to be struck here, since it’s highly likely that Clark has made all these choices consciously, and as with all her work there’s so little in MASSEDUCTION to find fault with, in terms of music and lyrics. Clark’s knack for going to new, interesting places with her music is the most Bowie (or Clash) thing about her, and I’d hate to be just another one of those fans moaning about their favourite artist changing their sound and becoming too mainstream.
Maybe what’s needed is to really commit to the David Bowie expectations and kill off the St. Vincent persona in favour of a new character. On the other hand, I don’t doubt that Annie Clark can find ways to develop her current character and stay relevant and interesting after MASSEDUCTION. The last lyrics of the album are “It’s not the end”. With Clark’s musical and lyrical genius, it couldn’t possibly be.
MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent is out now, released in the UK on Caroline International label.
Featured image credit: Rolling Stone