In a recent interview, Annie Clark (aka St Vincent) introduced the world to a new adjective: “abortiony”. It was used by her co-producer John Congleton to describe the guitars on her second album Actor. Setting aside the physiological ramifications of that term, it’s actually a pretty accurate description of Actor’s musical methodology as a whole.
This is an album studded with passages of serene beauty, but these passages frequently come to sudden, jolting ends: some bracing atonality is nearly always around the corner. St Vincent’s debut, 2007’s excellent Marry Me, had its noisy moments, but these were cordoned off within a small cluster of songs. This allowed for moments of highly conventional prettiness, such as the Norah Jones-esque title track.
On Actor, the two sides of St Vincent’s musical personality are allowed to mingle more freely. Opener The Strangers represents the album in microcosm. A celestial choir ushers in a melody of graceful elegance. Then, about halfway through, the song is ravaged unexpectedly by some razor-toothed guitar riffage. On first listen it feels like the musical equivalent of doodling a massive cock-and-balls on a Rembrandt, but eventually this reveals itself as the first moment of compositional brilliance on an album packed full of them.
In the same interview, Clark bigged up the influence of David Bowie‘s Scary Monsters And Super Freaks album, specifically the guitar work of the mighty Robert Fripp. This was no idle boast. At times, Actor does feel like a latter-day sister piece to Bowie’s 1980 album. The Fripp influence is most clearly felt on Actor Out Of Work and Marrow, each punctuated by bursts of abrasive guitar which show scant regard to the songs’ otherwise delicate melodies. The deranged solo on the latter is the album’s thrilling high point.
Elsewhere, The Neighbors features a simple, almost nursery-rhyme-esque vocal melody. Musically, though, there are all kinds of strange things happening: earth-shuddering bursts of guitar, a queasy organ breakdown and pounding, John Bonham-style drums.
It’s as if Clark finds it all-too-easy to conjure up pretty melodies, and therefore feels duty-bound to subvert her songs with unconventional arrangements. That’s not to say that a little conventionality isn’t welcomed when it does appear. Arriving late in the day, The Party is a straightforwardly pretty piano ballad, and none the worse for it.
Annie Clark is a woman making slightly unhinged music within the parameters of pop. Kate Bush comparisons are therefore inevitable. But St Vincent is most appropriately filed alongside contemporaries like Patrick Wolf, Beck and PJ Harvey: maverick solo artists unbound by the limitations of any easily-identifiable genre.
Getting St Vincent on board represents a real coup for 4AD, who seem to be in the early stages of a revival a la Rough Trade in the early noughties. The label has been rewarded by the delivery of an unpredictable and addictive record which should cement St Vincent’s burgeoning reputation as an unnaturally talented songwriter.
So, Actor by St Vincent, then. It’s, er, “abortiony”. But in the best possible way.