By Eric Sams | 29 April 2009
The overall effect of the new St. Vincent joint is that of a bad dream—or, perhaps more accurately, a series of bad dreams all scored by Ennio Morricone. However, let me assure you that the record is not as ineffectually artsy/trippy/David Lynchy as that description, standing alone, might lead you to conclude. See what I did there? Now you have to read the rest of my review.
I only say bad dreams because of the thematic preoccupation with darkness evident in almost every track and the unsettling, disjointed logic hinting at something even more nightmarishly dark left just at light’s edge. And it’s not a really bad dream, not the kind you wake up screaming from. More the kind that comes back to you in snippets throughout the course of the next day, fucking up your coffee break or distracting you from the Tivo’d episode of For the Love of Ray J that you’re trying to watch. Need a reference point? Think any one of Tony’s dream sequences in the third or fourth season of The Sopranos. And that’s kinda my point: Tony’s nightmares are fucking awesome—rich and sinister, highly suggestive with ethereal details sprinkled tantalizingly throughout.
Enter Actor. There’s a pall of inky smoke gliding through each and every one of these tracks, neither subtle nor apparent, and like smoke the lingering aura is a byproduct of something smoldering. The pulsing ember is Annie Clark herself and the trick here is that, although we certainly feel the heat emanating from some unspeakable hellfire somewhere, we never quite get a clear picture of that source. Instead we see the simmering auras rising from the varied surfaces of these songs—specters that are chilling, certainly, but also as smooth as the contours of dream logic. This effect comes out of Clark using the tension between contrasting song structure and lyrics as well as any musician working today. On Actor every bitter castigation (“The Strangers”), every portentous warning (“Save Me From What I Want”), every strikingly literal plea for help (“Marrow”) is simultaneously belied and enhanced by lush, simpering, jagged productions. On “The Bed” an eerily calm Clark armed “with our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson” taunts a contextless victim with casual cleverness: “Stop right where you stand / We need a chalk outline if you can / Keep your hands where we can see them, please.” This is brutal stuff, and she delivers it in a disaffected cadence that is the sonic equivalent of a Marlo Stanfield stare; but the simply plucked guitar line of the verse and groaning strings of the chorus rob the lyrics of their cruel immediacy. It’s the sleepwalking killer. This murderous gloat isn’t cruelty. Cruelty is what you read about in the newspaper; this is barely even real.
All the pretty-ass oneirism is effective enough but what makes Actor an honest-to-God good record—not just a dreamy one—is the way that Clark can use such a simple formula to get such an engaging range of textures. The intros of “The Strangers” and “Just the Same But Brand New” both conjure images of frolicking anthropomorphic Pixar cuddlies: the former a cooing choir of altos wrapped around a lilting cello line, and the latter a fistful of synth chimes bent backward on themselves. They are, both of them, saccharine. Then there’s “Marrow,” which opens in a similarly gooey fashion before an industrial (!) stomp claws its way out of the song’s gaping mouth and Clark begins to chant “H-E-L-P / Help me / Help me.” I would not be the least bit surprised if this song was ghostwritten by Trent Reznor, but, like, 1994 Trent Reznor. Then there’s “The Party” whose opening verse sounds like the Cardigans’ “Love Fool,” then there’s the lithe, effortless sexiness of “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” and then there’s every other track on this record taking myriad routes with uniformly excellent results—even if their shared destination ultimately rests in some inscrutable nether.
Like an unsettling dream, Actor will stay with you for quite a while, but it isn’t listeners or critics that will be discomfited by the eccentric sophistication here. Upon spinning Actor for the first time one Glow staffer remarked, “I hope Feist listens to this record and realizes that she needs to step her game up.” I’ll add my support to this admonition and do you one better: all of Annie Clark’s supposed contemporaries should feel a twinge of envy the first time they hear “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood.” Don’t bother pinching yourselves, ladies, fellas, Tony Sopranos. I’ll just tell you straight out…this isn’t a dream. You really are that far behind. And “Don’t Stop Believin’” will not save you.