It feels kinda bizarre that a record dotted with so many exclamation points should be so between-feeling, but here we are. Over the last few years, Annie Clark has gradually become a Big Figure, something that might have as much to do with her complex, nervy, strange music as it does with watching her tear it up on the guitar. She’s an outlier on mainstreet/stream in nearly every way, through her unorthodoxies (those extra beats in “Cruel”), her visual presentation, and her lyrical preoccupations; in short, she’s found a way to straddle in and out, and St. Vincent seemed primed to be a big coming out party, where instead of existing on the fringe of the zeitgeist, she became closer to the center of the conversation, someone who influences, not just entertains. But there’s a ghost in the architecture here, because St. Vincent never adds up to being the album it feels like it should be; this is by far her least fascinating (unsettling, enigmatic, spontaneous) record, even if the surface pleasures are the greatest.
To be clear, the first half is bang on the money, doing everything she’s done before better, brighter, and deeper. It’s ambitious, insanely well-arranged, insightful, coy and bold, and the bit where she says yaaaah in “Digital Witness” might be the best word anyone sings this year. That song, “Rattlesnake,” and the more experimental “Birth in Reverse” are her twitchiest, smartest pop songs so far — they are blindingly bright — and “Huey Newton” takes the kind of unfurling structure that “Black Rainbow” arced through and nails it. “I Prefer Your Love” is legitimately the first Annie Clark song you can slow dance and weep to, and it’s her barest performance, singing to her mother in a dyingly sad fashion (like an elevator plummeting from a penthouse). Tellingly, there’s only about 10 seconds of guitar.
From there, the wheels fall off. “Bring Me Your Loves” is sort of like her “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” except it goes on about three times as long, and “Psychopath” and “Regret” kind of just chug along, circling around vague and unexpressed ideas of devotion and ennui. By the end of “Every Tear Disappears,” you’re starting to feel like the blanket Linus dragged around. Closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” opens with a callback to the melody of “Birth in Reverse,” and it’s a bloody jolt; you get excited again, and then realize how much you hadn’t been by what you’d been hearing before.
But the problem is mostly lyrical. St. Vincent dances with themes (family, success and the absence thereof, the isolation of the digital) but only ever seems to fringe against them in a way that doesn’t let the record add up to more than the sum of its parts; it never goes past being a set of songs. Maybe it’s too direct; lyrically, she’s at her best when rattling cages, adopting voices, sweeping the rug then pulling it out from under you, like the unpeeled suburban dystopias that abounded in Actor or “Strange Mercy” transforming from a torch song into a revenge fantasy. The longer Annie Clark has been around, the more open and personal she’s become, but as she moves away from fiction and playing with reality toward Statements (and there are a few sneaking around here), she seems to have less and less to say, fumbling with the outlines of vaguer generalities, instead of unshucking the grisly strangeness of things by starting neck-deep in them, like she does in “Rattlesnake.” For the first time, she’s not showing but telling, and her confessional style isn’t detailed or strong enough to be convincing, and her didacticisms even less so.