St Vincent: All Born Screaming review – the unmasking of a great American songwriter

Estimated read time 5 min read

The cover of St Vincent’s previous album, Daddy’s Home, featured Annie Clark in character: heavy eye-make up, ripped stockings, blond wig – the “benzo beauty queen” who haunted a number of songs.

Well, of course it did. Clark once released an album called Actor, and role-playing is very much her thing: the prosthetics-heavy “grotesque beast” on the sleeve of her David Byrne collaboration, Love This Giant; a “cult leader” for her eponymous 2014 album; the vertiginously heeled “dominatrix in a mental asylum” of 2017’s Masseduction. But curiously, Daddy’s Home also contained a song that appeared to question the wisdom of adopting personae at all. “So, who am I trying to be?” wondered The Melting of the Sun, before lauding a succession of confessional singer-songwriters: “Saint Joni” who wasn’t a “phony”, “brave” Tori Amos, “proud” Nina Simone. “But me, I never cried,” it added, “to tell the truth, I lied.”

The artwork for All Born Screaming by St VincentView image in fullscreen

You could read The Melting of the Sun in other ways – not least as a song about the declining importance of pop music within popular culture – but clearly the issue of selfhood has been bothering Clark. On Daddy’s Home’s successor, she still trades in finely painted portraits of others, but she is no longer using an alter ego to paint them. “I’m more interested in that which is raw and essential,” she recently told an interviewer. What prompted this change is an interesting question, and the answer might lie in the fact that All Born Screaming is thick with images of grief, both at the failure of relationships and at actual deaths. Reckless opens with its narrator watching someone die, Sweetest Fruit with a meditation on the accident that killed producer Sophie three years ago.

Whatever her reasons, Clark’s new interest in the “raw and essential” plays out across All Born Screaming. Instead of a lavishly costumed persona, the album’s cover features Clark on fire, and the songs are full of people who – as she perhaps does – feel stuck between reality and how they’re perceived. The title track talks about a “pantomime of a modern girl”. The protagonist of Flea lavishes attention and money on their object of their affections, but confesses: “Look at you and all I see is meat.” The narrator of Broken Man, meanwhile, swaggers lubriciously along, with music to match – the bursts of backing vocals nod in the direction of Prince’s Kiss – before the facade collapses and they’re revealed as wounded, desperate and “cracking up”, with music to match: jolting bursts of distorted guitar, so loud they almost obliterate everything else on the track.

You could take single Big Time Nothing as a comment on the bad faith and falsity of life online – “don’t show, don’t flake, go hard, debase” – but whatever it’s about, it leaves the narrator hollow: “I look inside / Nothing.” Even the end-of-days scenario conjured at length on The Power’s Out, complete with a cast who seem to have arrived direct from David Bowie’s similarly apocalyptic Five Years, turns out to be not as it seemed: “That’s why I never came home,” it ends, as if the apocalypse was just a particularly extravagant excuse pitched to a suspicious partner.

Clark has described the music as “a pummelling” – her thrilling guitar playing is at its most distorted and spiky throughout – and said its sound, a world away from Daddy’s Home’s queasy 70s rock homages, is influenced by the music of her teens, including Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails. You might also add grunge. There’s a plethora of quiet-loud lurches in dynamics, and Dave Grohl plays drums on Flea and Broken Man. The latter song’s conclusion quotes Mudhoney’s In ’n’ Out of Grace, either deliberately or coincidentally.

That said, the music on All Born Screaming is too restless and packed with ideas to count as 90s revivialism. You’re equally likely to encounter a sudden burst of soft rock, some Zapp-ish electro-funk, a neatly done exploration of reggae’s weird sense of space or an epic Baba O’Riley synth arpeggio as you are a thunderous industrial rhythm. Nothing stays in one place for long, including Clark’s voice, which shifts from a spectral presence that mushes words into incomprehensibility on opener Hell Is Near to almost painfully in-your-face on Reckless.

What ties it all together is her beautifully honed skill as a songwriter. For all the sonic uproar, the melodies are impossible to miss, and so is the personality she imprints across the album: troubled but self-aware, wryly funny, the doubts and fears and worries she expresses completely at odds with the confidence of her approach to risk-taking, shape-shifting music. “The sweetest fruit is on the limb,” she sings at one juncture, a point underlined by All Born Screaming’s left turn.

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