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St. Vincent: All Born Screaming

by | Jun 5, 2024 | 0 comments

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Marci Cohen, Head of Instruction and Consultation, Boston University

Album cover of All Born Screaming (Total Pleasure)

With an image suggesting a literal interpretation of the expression “firearms,” St. Vincent contorts herself with sleeves ablaze on the cover of her seventh solo album All Born Screaming (Total Pleasure). St. Vincent is the stage name of the guitarist and singer born Annie Clark. Playing guitar since age 12, she attended Berklee College of Music then left before graduating, so common a path for Berklee students who land gigs that there was once a stigma to sticking around to complete a degree. She joined the Polyphonic Spree, a symphonic pop group best known for the quirk of a huge chorus performing in white choir robes. She launched her solo career with the album Marry Me (Beggars Banquet) in 2007, and has steadily built her profile in the ensuing years, including racking up three Grammy wins.

She has also notched some impressive collaborations. In 2012, she partnered with former Talking Head David Byrne for Love This Giant (4AD), an album notable for its brass section with the feel of a demented marching band. She was one of four female musicians, along with Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and Lorde, who filled in on vocals for the late Kurt Cobain, when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. She produced Sleater-Kinney’s 2019 album The Center Won’t Hold (Mom + Pop Music). She co-wrote “Cruel Summer” with Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff for Swift’s 2019 album Lover (Republic). Last October, four years after the album’s release, the track unexpectedly climbed its way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, riding the wave of Taylormania with The Eras Tour concert movie release.

All Born Screaming is sonically rich. “Hell is Near” is the lush entrance, the lyrics abstract but with vague religious allusions suggesting a scene with a lover. It flows into “Reckless,” which initially recalls giving in to abandon with a lover, and it leads to doom. The track starts from a hush with muted piano chords then slowly crescendos. Then, in the final third of the song, the arrangement sounds like a looming giant stomping in with a lumbering gait. It ends with twitches and glitches as the monster passes. The creation of atmosphere is akin to Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack work for David Lynch. “Broken Man” begins with a mechanical tick-tock that is then augmented by other sounds, including a rising sinuous bassline and horn punctuations. The spare start emphasizes the sly double entendre “I can make your kingdom come.” The song refers to nails in an allusion to the crucifixion, a symbol that also appears in “Hell Is Near.” A few snare hits mark another music transition, with a heavy presence accompanying the repetition “What are you looking at?” demanding attention like PJ Harvey’s “50ft Queenie” (Rid of Me, Island, 1993). “Flea” offers a reset, a cool-down after the intensity of “Broken Man.” Here, she boasts of her skills at insinuating herself into her target’s life. The squiggly “Big Time Nothing” offers a nod to the Art of Noise’s 1980s collage funk. The prominent horns in “Violent Times” reflect the influence of Love This Giant as well as John Barry’s work on James Bond films and the way that ‘90s trip-hoppers Portishead incorporated Barry’s ideas. “The Power’s Out” sweetly presents a future dystopia depicting the mayhem that ensues when we run out of electricity. Like many other tracks, “The Sweetest Fruit” takes a sharp turn into additional instrumentation partway through, with only the return of the title refrain clarifying that it is a continuation rather than a different song. Closing out the album are a pair of reggae-influenced tracks, “So Many Planets” and the title track. She uses the genre as a launchpad, mainly retaining syncopation and feel. Thematically, “So Many Planets” is a follow-up to “The Power’s Out,” suggesting the search for a new planet as a solution to the apocalypse on earth. The title track wraps up the album with a release, letting go of the artist’s past, including noting “Those were the days, and I was miserable/A karaokе version of Leonard’s ‘Hallelujah.’” The track pauses in the middle, taking a break from the perky beat to return with a more haunting repetition of the title phrase.

Although she has co-produced previously, All Born Screaming marks St. Vincent’s first solo self-production. Unlike her production work with Sleater-Kinney that resulted in erasing too much of that band’s distinctive identity and making them sound like St. Vincent, her work here is much more successful, bringing out the best version of herself. It starts with her approach to guitar. Although she studied at Berklee, she’s not a traditional shredder, merely interested in showing off her fleet fingers. Instead, she’s an inventive guitarist, on a quest to create new, weird sounds that accentuate rather than overtake her songs. She makes copious use of negative space, not just sonic overload.

St Vincent’s supple vocals weave in and out of the deeply-textured fabric of the instrumentation. She brought in collaborators, some high-profile (Dave Grohl), medium profile (in-demand session drummer Josh Freese, Welsh singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon) and some low-profile (Rachel Eckroth, Mark Guiliana, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Stella Mogzawa, and David Ralicke), but they are there to carry out her vision rather than for their own star power. All Born Screaming is self-assured, decidedly modern, and unique.

It’s unsurprising that, with seven albums under her belt, some have been stronger than others. Marry Me put her on the map. The next two, 2009’s Actor and 2011’s Strange Mercy (4AD) treaded water. Love This Giant expanded her musical palette and established her stature as an innovator as a peer to Byrne, thereby giving her visibility and credibility with an older generation of listeners. MASSEDUCTION (Loma Vista, 2017) leaned heavily into electronic instrumentation. Her 2021 follow-up Daddy’s Home (Loma Vista) had a ‘70s sleazy boogie vibe. All Born Screaming isn’t a huge step forward in her artistry, and it doesn’t match Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter (Columbia) as the grandest statement of the year. But it stands with her self-titled 2014 album (Loma Vista) as her best work.

Check out the playlist for “Collecting Music in a Streaming AgeHERE!

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