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« How to Survive New Years in New York City | Main | 2014 Year in Review: Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams, Future Islands, and What Wasn't the Album of the Year? »

2014 Year in Review: St. Vincent, Album of the Year

Around the time of last year's Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Annie Clark joining Nirvana on stage to perform "Lithium" it occurred to me that she is the coolest person in music today.

Since Clark's band, St. Vincent, came on the scene with their phenomenal 2007 debut album Marry Me she has cultivated the perfect mixture or accessibility, experimentation, and persona.

While Clark continues to write and compose all of St. Vincent's songs herself, she has gradually backed off with some of the recording responsibilities.  On Marry Me, Clark recorded nearly everything you hear on the album herself; from the vocals to piano to percussion to the dulcimer.  On 2014's St. Vincent, Clark is satisfied merely with recording the vocals and guitars leaving everything else to guest and studio musicians while she focuses on the bigger picture.

It is unlikely anyone would call any of St. Vincent's albums timid in their ambitiousness but with this year's self-titled St. Vincent there is a confidence that seemingly was not there before.  She allows things breathe and take shape more organically.  Perhaps it was Clark's 2012 collaboration with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne or just the gradual progression of her artistry, either way the result is a beautiful adventurous sound with just enough familiarity to appeal to mainstream.

The electronic crunch of the opening track "Rattlesnake" clashes perfectly with the desolate desert imagery of the lyrics.  The urgency of Clark's voice gives way to an explosion in the following track, "Birth in Reverse" signalling the crisp guitar/synth sound that most of the album is styled with.

I hesitate to use the word "balance" when describing St. Vincent because it implies even distribution.  St. Vincent's individual parts exists mostly in chaos.  Clark's brilliance is her ability to temper that chaos with just the right amount of order - a smooth vocal melody here, a well timed guitar breakdown there - and then have it all come together for a masterful flourish of sound.  The soft crooning of "Prince Johnny" melting into the electronic methodology in "Huey Newton".  

Technology is a recurring theme of St. Vincent, techno-esque guitars and robotic sounding vocals clashing up against lyrics that call for human connection in a digital age.

This is best encapsulated in "Digital Witness", a bombastic song heavy with brass instruments in the verses and synth in the refrain.  The song also shows off Clark's best talent: taking a song trying to go a million different ways at once, forcing it onto a one way-track and fueling it with a great hook.

There is something distinctly more joyous in St. Vincent that was absent from the band's previous albums.  Clark herself described the album as reflecting a much more "extroverted" emotional state when she wrote and recorded it.  A track like "I Prefer You Love", which Clark wrote when her mother briefly fell ill, might have been a introspective melancholy song if it had appeared on Strange Mercy (2011) or Actor (2009). But on St. Vincent it is a celebration.

The final track of the album, "Severed Crossed Fingers" is the most emotional on the album, and my favorite.  The lyrics of the song speak to the quiet and incredible ability people possess to create hope even when trapped in an utterly hopeless situation.  The soaring, swelling emotion heard in Clark's voice matched with the meticulous ticking of the beat creates a build that gives listeners the very best of what St. Vincent has to offer at the very last chorus.  Clark said of recording the song, "I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done."

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