Annie Clark has yet to release St. Vincent, the new album sharing its title with her nom-de-rock, but in circles where it would be important, it is already making waves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the starting point was her hair. If there’s a bad habit we as a culture have, it’s immediately judging all things women do based on the physical, and the wild, platinum blonde dye-job Clark has been sporting was a pretty dramatic change, so it was basically a given that early buzz had almost nothing to do with her all-out musical prowess. More’s the pity, because the music is, pretty inarguably, the more interesting change.
Style shifting isn’t new for Annie, of course. Her debut, Marry Me, has as much to do with jazz sensibilities as with indie ones. Actor mines the chaotic carnivalesque more than anything. Strange Mercy floated through its own atmospheric haze. The new, self-titled effort feels cleverly vintaged so far, but also, to quote our own Matt Jackson, it’s likely her “art album.” This may seem a bit silly to fans: St. Vincent has always been a project with a clear sense of artistry, and there’s never been a question of the artsy eccentricity of its figurehead. This is, after all, a woman whose last album started with a track titled after a French art-house classic. Still, there is something very different about the work off this album. The vocals, for starters, are less clear in the mix, unlike previous albums, where Annie’s voice shines. It’s perhaps even clearer listening to the second release from it, “Digital Witness,” where the influence of David Byrne, her recent collaborator and long time godfather of artpop music (sorry, Gaga), is particularly evident: the staccato riffs here feel like they have a lot more in common with the horns throughout Love This Giant than similar breakdowns in songs like “Marrow.” It’s also one of the very rare St. Vincent tracks that doesn’t feel very specific, very personal. Her “I”s and “you”s seem far more rhetorical, and the line “People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window” seems pointed at “the world.” This is, then, perhaps the rarest of St. Vincent topics: a statement piece about society at large.
We tread this road daily. We sit at lunch with friends, and text others, somehow without irony, about how they are constantly glued to their phones. We are on Facebook, wishing our friends and family shared anything but photos of their kids/meals (I’m guilty of hating the former and doing the latter). We remember the progression from Myspace to Facebook to Twitter, where we went from posting stupid things to other peoples walls, to posting stupid things on our own walls, to just posting every trivial thing we ever thought. Today, the kids, as I hear it, are more apt to use Instagram and Snapchat for their socialization, condensing communication even further, but broadening the ways in which speedy oversharing can happen.
This is where “Digital Witness” enters the fray. There’s no reason to believe Annie is particularly averse to any one aspect of this. She has an active twitter account that seems to be run by her instead of a promotional cabal. It is entirely probable she uses her personal social network accounts to some degree just as we do, and likes the same sort of posts from her friends that most of us would like from ours. Still, the overarching theme is that goddamn, we love being voyeurs, and allowing others to see us. The TV is not quite the same mind-numbing argument most critiques leveled at the medium becomes, so much as our ability and desire to “look in the windows” of other people’s lives (just a bit prescient of a statement, given the aforementioned blonde drama). More telling is the chorus, asking “what’s the point of even sleeping/if I can’t show it/you can’t see me?” There’s an attention-seeking aspect of our society that goes far past the attention-seeking of days past. Anyone can get twitter follows, or thousands of Facebook friends. Everybody wants to sell something. Anybody can start a blog. More than anything, though, we can all access these things anywhere. We can tweet about seeing the Mona Lisa the second we see it (and even take pictures, though I’m sure the Louvre frowns on it). We can also, however, tweet twenty pictures of today’s outfit before running out the door. We can Instagram the traffic on the way to work, and our cubicle when we get there. We can… no wait, we do… post our daily frustrations on Facebook. We photograph the dinners we make, and our disheveled but still oh-s0-cute selves, and our followers see them instantly. Some people go for quantity, some for lengthy, detailed discussions of minutiae, and some for both. Thus is our digital life.
Let’s be honest, life can be a cold, lonely place, and sometimes it’s tempting to get as much connection with as many people as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that in general, but maybe we should tone it down a bit. No jumping off the London Bridge. No stopping sleeping. Annie exaggerates to show us, ideally, how we ourselves have become exaggerated in all the oversharing. It’s interesting the intimacy anonymity builds, and the temptations to tell all in a culture where now, we don’t have to wait to get to a computer, let alone find paper and a stamp to send a letter. Even the drunk dial, with the waiting for the line to pick up, if it ever did, was likely a more elegant affair than the drunk text. When we don’t HAVE to filter, we apparently tend not to filter at all. We get offended too, don’t we… the tweet that goes unretweeted, the pic we’re sure was awesome that no one likes, the conversation starter that gets ignored. Trivialities. We get invested in them. Maybe it’s a bit unhealthy. The digital age is pretty concretely here. Maybe it’s time to explore options for adapting to it. Or maybe you shouldn’t be listening to someone excited to buy another physical CD in 2014. Whatever the case, there looks to be plenty worth musing about on the next CD.
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