Annie Clark’s two greatest strengths are her songwriting and her uncanny shredding ability — in that order, and only separated by a hair’s breadth. But for as much as she’s shown off her fiery fretwork in the past, she always gives the listener a little bit of space to get acclimated to her dreamy, surrealist pop songs before she plugs into a distortion pedal that sounds like a jet engine, and gets to business with some inhuman guitar-neck manipulation. Only Marry Me’s “Now, Now” actually begins any of her albums with the sound of guitar, and even that’s relatively subdued. She dissolves into woodwinds on Actor’s “The Strangers,” and phases into a heady throb of synths on Strange Mercy’s “Chloe in the Afternoon.”
So it goes with her fourth, self-titled St. Vincent album. First track “Rattlesnake” opens not with guitar but rather pulses with a playful video-game beat — distorted, buzzing and gleefully inorganic. But by the time Clark does, indeed, fire up her six-stringer, it’s hard to know where it ends and the song’s exclamation-punctuated arrangement begins. This sets the surreal and noisily disorienting vibe that much of the album follows. Clark’s weapon of choice is even more processed than usual, punctuating her powerful pop songwriting with the biggest and boldest sounds she’s ever launched from her melody cannon: squawking skronk riffs on “Every Tear Disappears”; meaty “Back In Black” riffs on “Regret”; and big, brassy pop on “Digital Witness,” which is the strongest link here to Love This Giant, Clark’s collaborative album with David Byrne.
It isn’t as if Clark prepared a bold musical statement without the lyrical kick to match, however, infusing her all-caps jams with alternating one liners and profound statements. It’s hard not to be taken aback by the blunt opening of “Birth In Reverse”: “Oh, what an ordinary day/ Take out the garbage, masturbate.” And when Clark directs the line “I prefer your love to Jesus” to her mother in “I Prefer Your Love,” the underlying familial bonds outweigh whatever cheekily sacrilegious slant-rhyme she’s attempting.
St. Vincent is an overwhelming listen the first, second, maybe even third time around. It’s a sensorially disorienting experience that throws a lot at you simultaneously, whether or not you’re ready for it. Though, you do get a little bit of warning here. The regal look of the silver-haired, enthroned Clark on the cover is a vaguely intimidating one. And at the start of “Digital Witness,” when she commands the listener to “Get back to your seat,” it’s a demand you’d best obey. St. Vincent will flatten you like a steamroller the first time around, but it’s the kind of clobbering that grows immediately addicting.