I keep hunting my brain for the proper hyperbole to affix to the new, self-titled release from St. Vincent. The album, a release that seems at once playful and revolutionary, almost demands such breathless praise. There’s an implicit invitation to get lost in the odd rhythms, elusive textures, and shifting spirit of the music, yet there’s also a sharper sense that the songs were fully formulated into a more approachable shape than on previous St. Vincent releases, that there’s a desire to apply the wildest instincts to the sturdiest of songcraft with the goal of creating something that’s a recognizable pop album but utterly unrecognizable in every other respect. It’s deconstructionist and ebulliently grand, murky and yet polished to the sonic equivalent of an unexpectedly reflective surface. St. Vincent is a pulsating, popping forest of sound to get happily lost within. It’s an art piece you can dance to.
I stand by absolutely everything in that opening paragraph even as I feel it spins a misguided yarn about my reactions to the work. Annie Clark has delivered prickly, challenging work under the name St. Vincent plenty of times before, and most of the descriptors above could be applied with equal accuracy to releases like Actor and Strange Mercy. This new album, though, feels like a very different beast. It’s approachable in a different way, not quite as musically cryptic. Songs like lead single “Birth in Reverse” and the airily seductive “I Prefer Your Love” are more approachable, perhaps by design. Clark has noted that touring with David Byrne (in support of the duo’s acclaimed collaboration, Love This Giant) gave her a very different sense of how audiences could react to music with joyous dancing any time her cohort busted out one of his most loved songs. There’s no reason to believe that Clark would pander to an audience (or even have the capability to do so given the way she instinctually turns any hook into an oblong come-on), but St. Vincent carries with it the vivid intellectual and spiritual thrill of an artist reaching out to her audience, finding the aural pressure points that turn notes into irresistible stimuli and then tickling away.
That’s not to say the album isn’t still deliriously, wonderfully weird at points, the kind of material that would be pervasive had Kate Bush been elevated to same level of influential popularity as, say, the Beatles. Much-discussed album opener “Rattlesnake” sounds like it’s meant to accompany the happy montage of computer animated family film that’s been turned inside out by a hearty hit of peyote, and “Every Tear Disappears” is a sweet ballad from outer space. Clark doesn’t push boundaries. She’s blithely, brilliantly unaware that boundaries even exist, creating her music with the inventive fearlessness of a casual rebel. That’s a major part of why I want to ascribe some grand ambitions or at least dazzling, perception-altering results to St. Vincent. I’m only hesitant because my base reaction is so much simpler. Yes, the album may be a work of art, but it’s mostly a pure delight to listen to.