St. Vincent - Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of “Actor”

Actor Was Released on May 4, 2009

May 03, 2019 By Max Freedman Web Exclusive
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In 2009, very few people thought that the Annie Clark of 10-years-later would perform at the Grammys. In February 2019, at the storied awards ceremony, the musician best known as St. Vincent joined forces with the massively popular British singer Dua Lipa for a medley of their respective songs "MASSEDUCTION" and "One Kiss." It was unabashedly sexy, as was St. Vincent's 2017 album of the same name. Lipa later told Elle that she and Clark got along "like a house on fire," as Elle compared the performance to Madonna and Britney Spears' legendary 2003 VMAs kiss. Both artists won Grammys that night.

Not that 2019 was St. Vincent's first Grammys rodeo. In 2014, her self-titled fourth album won the award for Best Alternative Album. That album was Clark's first brush with the mainstream: Entertainment Weekly, TIME, and Rolling Stone were a select few of the many publications to include it in the top five of their 2014 year-end albums lists. The album bore all the symptoms one would expect of an artist shortly after collaborating and touring with David Byrne for a full album cycle: a zany balance of experimentation and pop accessibility, increased audience size and diversity, alien visual aesthetics and stage moves, and even a new, major-adjacent record label in Loma Vista.

Maybe few people who were actively listening to music in 2009 expected St. Vincent to navigate a path starting with a David Byrne collaboration and ending in two Grammys, but many people didn't quite notice the full-on star potential of her sophomore album Actor that year. That's not to say that Actor achieved any shortage of critical praise or commercial success: an 81 score on Metacritic counts as "universal acclaim," and a peak of 90 on the Billboard 200 chart (with about 60,000 copies sold to date) isn't so bad for an artist who was, at the time, newly minted to 4AD. Instead, listeners may not have immediately realized just how idiosyncratic, technically astounding, and utterly game-changing Clark's guitar work had become.

Following the precious, ornate arrangements of her 2007 debut Marry Me, Clark's fans latched onto Actor for continuing its predecessor's scholarly complexity (as would be expected of a sophomore album inspired by its creator obsessing over 1930s and '40s Disney soundtracks). The excited reaction to Actor's neatly chaotic orchestral flourishes thus sometimes overshadowed conversations about Clark's newly harsh, explosive, ceremoniously noisy pop instincts. These louder moments, retrospectively, foretold of Clark's decade-long growth from a multi-instrumental savant into a true guitar innovator, a musician who, to this day, constantly expands the boundaries of an instrument upon which over a half-century of popular music has already been built.

Actor's most aggressive segments best foreshadowed the genre-shattering guitar infusions Clark would deliver across her game-changing, universally beloved 2010s run of albums. Actor's opening track, "The Strangers," is arguably its best, a throbbing mess of paranoid kick drum, springtime flutes, and an absolute ripper of a guitar solo that scans as technically blazing when it's really just a bunch of octave chords played with the aggression of a Ferrari cutting off a Lexus on the freeway. Two years later, Clark would release her true breakthrough, 2011's Strange Mercy, and its second single, "Cruel," would echo "The Strangers" with verses laced in anxious woodwinds and disco-like percussion and, later, a guitar solo that's both played almost entirely on her guitar's lowest string and the sonic equivalent of a volcano erupting for the first time in centuries. The chorus of "Cruel" similarly feels like an update on the slapdash six-string madness of Actor's "Marrow," which explodes from its meditative first verse into a brass-sounding hurry of guitar in its choruses and a fire alarm sequence of six-string wails in its bridge.

Of course, Actor didn't just provide a cornerstone on which Clark would build solely one future song. Strange Mercy's charging "Northern Lights," save its rush of an outro keyboard solo, could never have existed without the punk stomp of "Actor Out of Work," which draws its unsettling forcefulness from a II-I guitar progression, an arrangement that should sound familiar and oft-trodden. Instead, in Clark's hands, it bursts forth as a wave of fragile fear-and that's before she keeps slamming the same chord while changing just its bass note every measure during the track's spine-tingling, moribund bridge. Pretty much all Actor's guitar work combines into one squealing command on St. Vincent's Clark-as-overlord attack "Bring Me Your Loves," and the second half of that album's overlooked centerpiece "Huey Newton" sounds like what would happen if an AI took every heavily overdriven moment on Actor and turned it into the optimal St. Vincent song. Even on "MASSEDUCTION," which won that fated Best Rock Song Grammy, the irresistible double-tap percussive line cedes time and time again to a screaming horse of an octave chord series and that legendary, signature Clark dive bomb.

Actor is certainly the album on which Clark's oft-heralded guitar skills first came into focus, but her instrument didn't always have to yell to be heard. The outro of "Black Rainbow," which is all but the album's most terrifying segment, sounds like an orchestral heart attack occurring in real time, but its guitar underbelly is simultaneously subtle and the whole foundation of the section's horror. The alarming chorus of the satanic nursery tune "The Neighbors" is punctuated with guitar blitzes as manic as they are restrained, just as Clark's guitar plays second fiddle to distraught strings in the song's bridge and commanding drums in its outro. Even "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood" is a unique bit of guitar trickery, its finger-plucked melody a deceptive spiderweb of notes dressed up as just an ordinary, mildly ominous arrangement.

No matter its form on Actor, Clark's guitar work dictates the album's grand explorations of anxiety and paranoia. These lyrical themes have come to dominate Clark's output: Strange Mercy tosses depression into the mix, St. Vincent examines how lifestyles and individual occurrences can exacerbate anxiety, and MASSEDUCTION ties paranoia to sexuality, gender, and power. Actor, though, presents Clark at her very most frightened. On "The Strangers," she exists aside a black hole and worries that the people in her life don't really know her. On "The Neighbors," she keeps secrets from family and friends. Even when, on "Just the Same But Brand New," she tries to change for another person and loses herself in the processa narrative more romantic than much of what's on Actor, let alone the rest of Clark's catalogshe gets anxious in crowded city streets. On "The Bed," monsters are chased with guns, but Clark seems to be as much the shooter as she is the target. Then, of course, there are the songs literally named "Save Me From What I Want" and "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood." Clark would dabble more in subtlety further down the line-Strange Mercy's "Surgeon" is a masterclass in narratives both vague and concrete enough to paint vivid pictures, St. Vincent's "Prince Johnny" focuses on a character equally silhouette-like and defined, and MASSEDUCTION's "New York" makes a loss seem as massive as the United States' largest citybut Actor's whole pull is how urgent, dramatic, and brazen its narrator's mental crises are.

Even Actor's music videos function as mini-films on anxiety. In the "Marrow" video, as Clark walks along a barren rural road, everyone whom she walks past stops what they're doing and begins to follow her. In the "Actor Out of Work" video, actors audition in front of Clark, but they all break down into uncontrollable sobs. Even the overtly silly "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood" video, in which Clark performs solely for two of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen's pre-Portlandia characters (who would eventually be part of the show when it started a year later), screams of discomfort: Why is Clark performing alone, for just two people, in such a crowded, messy, lonely bookstore.

It's the "Marrow" video, though, that seems to have all of Actor's answers: In its final scene, Clark closes her eyes, and all her followers disappear. She's right back where she was at the video's start, unperturbed and blissful. The Annie Clark of 2009 may have been afraid, but she's now clearly learned to take a breath and let all her worries dissipate: Actor's protagonists, for all their charms, aren't Grammys performers. They're still on the stage, but just out of sight-their ghosts lie in every MASSEDUCTION guitar blast. And why would she let those phantoms disappear? Ten years later, Actor sounds just as brilliant as everything Clark has released since.

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Edward
May 6th 2019
1:23pm

Wow, a decade Time flies!

Portra
May 14th 2019
6:38am

I don’t think that she is a talented singer. My friend Ludivina Ragusa is much better than her. What these new age singers could teach the new generation? The answer is obvious - nothing. I knew that there are a lot of talented singers but they are not so famous.