VIDEO: St. Vincent, "Actor Out of Work"
"I think that I secretly wish I was a filmmaker." Annie Clark may consider this some real hush-hush info, but even a cursory listen to Actor (4AD), her latest album (as St. Vincent), makes clear her cinematic aspirations. "When I was approaching this record, I wanted to make music that was as visual as it was visceral. My hope was to make this beautiful music that you might hear in a film, but the pictures are the words."
Clark attracted international acclaim with her 2007 debut, Marry Me — which was released after she'd served tours of duty in the Polyphonic Spree and both Glenn Branca's and Sufjan Stevens's touring bands. The album saw her begin to refine her vision, one where jarring musical shifts, precious melodies, and dark lyrical magic all share a stage. Actor can be heard as these ambitions writ large and more fantastically, this time with Clark using some of her favorite celluloid phantasms as creative springboards. The album even opens like a film, with the woodwinds, the wispy chorus, and the coy yet unsettling vocals of "The Strangers." Later, a sunny melody lilts from the speakers — but from within the bleakness of "Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood." This odd coupling of beguiling innocence and dark lyricism sure seems like the machinations of a closet director.
But Clark's not so sure. "Nothing was really calculated, not in a false way. I just happen to love certain kinds of whimsical melodies. But lyrically I'm influenced more by Charles Bukowski or Richard Brautigan — these sort of dark sources, these human elements. Those two things just kind of come together naturally for me."
If it's not quite a concept album (Clark suggests that "it's really more a collection of themes"), then it's at least a record whose image bank is primarily the silver screen — and it goes deep. "The Wizard of Oz is a big one, especially the scene with the poppies, where everything goes Technicolor. Woody Allen's Stardust Memories — I love that it's a film within a film. Also, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and all of those Disney films, those really kill me. With the woodwinds and other orchestral arrangements in 'The Strangers' and 'The Bed' [also from Actor], I was going for a similar kind of mystery and magic. And also Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt and Pierrot le fou — in those films, I really love the way that you can't quite tell the difference between the fiction and the reality. I wanted to incorporate that kind of ambiguity and non-linearity into the music."
Any Godard fan would love Actor, if only for its jarring mise-en-scène of moods and sounds. It's like one of the French iconoclast's film soundtracks, with shocking shards and lush melodies drifting together through the same frames and often jostling for the spotlight. Both "Black Rainbow" and "Marrow" start with wistful innocence and sprightly tuneage; then fuzzed-out bass and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink symphonics crash the party, ratcheting the tension to near-unbearable mania. "I wanted to feel like the songs could just jump and move in ways that weren't so logical — because I think brains work like that, you know?"