St. Vincent has involved herself in many of pop’s more avant-garde branches over the course of her career: The Baroque-esque pop band The Polyphonic Spree; the ensemble of pop composer Sufjan Stevens; and guest appearances with the Mountain Goats and the New Pornographers. Collectively, these experiences allowed for the Tulsa, Oklahoma-born singer and composer to develop the ear and collaborative energy of David Byrne – legendary front man of the Talking Heads – after three critically lauded solo projects. Byrne and Vincent’s collaborative album, entitled Love This Giant, was, by many measures, a success – the inventive, brass ensemble backdrops created spacious backdrops for vocal play between the two clear voices. Byrne dominated the project with his elastic vocals and witty lyrics, but St. Vincent held her own alongside the legend, and the project soared far more often than it fell. She does not shrink or fade in the huge scale of the project, comfortable and in control of a somewhat bizarre but always pleasing landscape. Creating alongside the king of quirky, inventive crossover music, she seemed to have paid her dues, and was poised to step into his shoes.
Her newest solo project, St. Vincent, is less a celebration of her formidable abilities and more a showcase of the range of sounds she can create. Byrne’s horns are replaced by synths, a move that enables her to experiment more but at the cost of the personal warmth that was appealing throughout Love This Giant. When the album goes big, it goes huge; a sweeping vocal choir provides harmony with the lead vocals and a wandering guitar on “Prince Johnny”, the loud synth riffs of “Birth in Reverse” (which remain on the right side of predictability for a pop song – they are familiar in an age of all-electro-everything pop music, but they don’t become redundant). Similarly, when it tightens up, the stripped down sound showcases St. Vincent’s formidable songwriting ability. “Huey Newton”, the first sonically subdued song of the project, is the album at its best. As the momentum builds toward a bleating bass line, the vocals cry of being “entombed in a shrine of zeros and ones” with increasing urgency and panic, before collapsing, out of breath. This track, along with standout “Bring Me Your Loves”, sounds truly new, different from any of St. Vincent’s contemporaries or her work with Byrne.
The flat moments, however, occur when the pop tropes that are masterfully reshaped in the strongest songs are simply plugged into a somewhat generic song structure. The relentlessly staccato “Psychopath”, for instance, feels a bit too close to an Apple commercial soundtrack. Even on “Digital Witness”, where crisp horns reminiscent of Love This Giant dominate, the warmth of originality is lacking.
St. Vincent, for better or worse, must continue to take risks with pop music – this is part of the job description of dancing on the genre’s risky edges. Her self-titled album shows off her ability to take ownership of the sounds she employs. Hopefully she continues to avoid the pitfalls of predictability.
4 out of 5
You can buy St. Vincent on Amazon.