4AD · May 4, 2009
Actor, St. Vincent’s sophomore album, is filled with contrasts: screeching guitars, Annie Clark’s heavenly voice, angelic string sections, and lyrics that reveal crushing anxiety upon further inspection. These compositional opposites can be viewed as a metaphor of the deception people have towards themselves and others, as stated by Clark, emphasizing “the difference between the appearance of something and the reality.” Even the album art depicts the seemingly flawless musician, but her blank stare indicates something is hidden underneath. Originally orchestrated entirely on GarageBand so as to not disturb her apartment neighbors in New York City, St. Vincent’s unconventional creative process has nonetheless resulted in one of her most ingenious albums that has withheld the test of time.
Drawing inspiration from the scores of vintage Disney and Woody Allen films, “The Strangers” opens the album with what sounds like a picturesque Snow White world. The uplifting strings and Clark’s calm voice are deceptive to the dark undertones in which she sings “Paint the black hole blacker,” a quote from Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America. As the orchestral strings spiral downwards and Clark’s voice begins to echo, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not a fairytale, but indeed a place where secrets are kept as Clark questions “What do I share? / What do I keep from all the strangers who sleep where I sleep?” Launching into climactic guitar and fast tempoed drums, the darkness of this charming world is quickly revealed but retracted soon afterwards as the song returns to softer acoustic guitar and fades with the same Disney-esque melody.
“Save Me From What I Want,” inspired by Jenny Holzer’s visual art piece Protect Me From What I Want, portrays a self-aware female who admits her facade as a “Wife in watercolors,” one who can “wash away.” In the later song “Marrow,” the calm request to be rescued in “Save Me From What I Want” escalates into a shameless demand for help. Clark spells out to “H E L P / Help me / Help me” alongside gritty guitar and admittance of anger engrained in her body with the lyrics “Muscle connects to the bone / And bone to the ire and the marrow.” Evoking imagery of a puppet that is ultimately powerless, Clark says “So I pretend there aren’t ten strings tied to all ten of my fingers,” conclusively admitting she is controlled by external forces but must pretend she is not.
If Actor were a score to a film, “Black Rainbow” would serve as the music of the rising action. Bizarrely serene, Clark mentions a “Bird outside the kitchen fighting his reflection” but poses the dark question with an inherently malevolent answer when she asks, “What’s he going to win when he wins?” The instrumentals continually get louder, the back rhythm becomes stronger, an eerie muffled trombone begins, and Clark commands with authority to “have to shout out loud / And set the bed alight and slow.” As a violin scales higher and higher, the electronic effects become progressively distorted and the listener is left deeply unsettled.
As for a climax of the album, “Just The Same But Brand New” serves lyrically and compositionally as such. Starting slowly with oscillating guitar and a slow vocal trill, Clark again plays with the notion of opposites with the oxymoron of being “Just the same but brand new.” Filled with imagery of weightlessness and floating away, the music raises the listener as the slow beat progresses and ultimately explodes into a powerful drum beat that blows the listener away.
Annie Clark has certainly evolved in her musical style since her second album, Actor, but the LP serves as more than a simple testimony of a blossoming musician. Actor is a poignant, anxiety-filled masterpiece in which St. Vincent demonstrates that every fairytale has a dark side. Ten years later, Actor continues to shed light on the darkest part of ourselves in the most beautiful way possible, no matter what guise we wear.