Artists Of The Year CMU Approved

CMU Artists Of The Year 2014: St Vincent

By | Published on Thursday 11 December 2014

Every weekday in the run up to the Christmas break, we’ll be revealing another of our ten favourite artists of the year. See the full list of artists announced so far here. Next up is St Vincent…

St Vincent

When it was announced a year ago that Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, had signed a new record deal with Universal it was a weird feeling. She seemed not only inherently tied to independent music and the creativity it allows, having worked exclusively with the Beggars Group up to that point, but one of the indie community’s real stars. And yet there she went, switching allegiances to ‘the enemy’.

I guess the real fear was that, having worked up to 2011’s brilliant third album, ‘Strange Mercy’, followed by her collaboration with David Byrne, ‘Love This Giant’, the following year, she might get lost amongst the noise of the world’s biggest record label.

But it slowly became apparent, and I don’t think I’m just rewriting this in hindsight, that she had a plan all along. What had seemed like a creative peak with ‘Strange Mercy’ and ‘Love This Giant’ turned out to be the start of the climb, and if she was going to fully realise what she wanted to do, she was going to need someone to drop down a stronger rope than the one even one of the biggest indies could offer.

And so, the cutting of ties and the access to new found resources led to the emergence of a new St Vincent in 2014. Some kind of superhero version of what came before. She took all the elements of what she had been and reworked herself into a star more akin to someone like Bowie himself.

Not that she left any of what made her great before behind. Her songs remain incredible feats of musicianship made accessible, topped with intimidatingly intelligent lyrics made relatable. But it does seem symbolic that this is the album she chose to name ‘St Vincent’. It feels like a starting point.

“I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral”, she said ahead of the album’s release. Did she manage that? Who knows? You can play it at my funeral, if you want. Though if I’m killed running naked from a rattlesnake, maybe skip the first track.

Life and death definitely run prominently through the record. The aforementioned ‘Rattlesnake’ confronts mortality, and fear of it. The title of ‘Birth In Reverse’ seems a direct reference to passing on, while the beautiful ‘I Prefer Your Love’ is written to Clark’s mother following a period of serious ill health.

The centrepiece of the album, however, is a song about life. Modern life. It may not be a very positive view of modern life, but ‘Digital Witness’ is definitely about it. In the song, the protagonist wonders “what’s the point of even sleeping” if it’s not posted on social media. It seems to paint at least some of us as narcissists who crave eyes on us at all times.

The song may be a single idea, simplified and exaggerated, but it was enough of an examination of cultural change in the modern, online world to prompt a great deal of discussion, Clark herself even writing an article for the Guardian on what she likes about Twitter.

Explaining the inspiration for the song to Pitchfork, she added: “We have this feeling that we’re being watched, and our psychic response is to make ourselves transparent. The real currency in the future will be privacy”.

It’s a song that feels very ‘now’ – particularly in light of this year’s increased discussions around the NSA and the amount of information we’re handing over to big corporations online – and captures feelings of distrust for the internet that are certainly very real for a lot of people. It’ll date, sure. But there’s a certain bravery in someone clearly setting out to write something totally of the moment like that.

So, it’s lyrically satisfying, but perhaps one of the most pleasing things about ‘St Vincent’ is that it sees Clark confidently step forward as arguably the greatest guitarist of her generation. Her skill was no secret before, of course – just watch this performance of ‘Surgeon’ from ‘Strange Mercy’ – but she’s really stepped it up this time.

This is even more apparent in her live show, where she emerges every bit the rockstar. Albeit her own version of a rockstar, slightly out of step from that which might be expected. Touring this album, she took on a stiffer persona, songs dialled up to bring her riffs to the fore but all performed with a nonchalant effortlessness. Still, her recent show at the Roundhouse in London was engaging and thrilling throughout.

Live performance, it seemed, she was treating as theatre, not hiding the clearly rehearsed elements of the show, from her between-song chat to synchronised movements with her band – most notably her and guitarist Toko Yasuda shuffling back and forth like wooden figures moving in and out of a Swiss chalet clock, while knocking out the twin guitar solo of ‘Birth In Reverse’.

All of these things make her stand out as one of this year’s greatest artists, but there’s something else about her too. Something that makes her mysterious, even when she’s not trying to be. Something that prompts people to analyse her at great length. She just seems to have become the kind of artist we’re always being told doesn’t exist anymore. And it seems like that is entirely how she planned it.

Now, here’s the video for ‘Digital Witness’: