Album Review: St. Vincent – All Born Screaming

[Total Pleasure/Fiction/Virgin Music; 2024]

One of the most notable annoying tendencies in music discourse is the deification of icons that renders their existence a blueprint of any musician. The reason why artists like Prince or Kate Bush are so noteworthy is precisely because they are unique in their ability to embody their art. It’s bizarre to herald that this could be replicated, but it’s mostly also unfair to the musicians who are compared to their image – not only because it is impossible to replicate their aura, but also because their cultural evolution was parallel to a moment in time that is (long) gone. There can’t be a new David Bowie, because David Bowie reflected on whatever trend and innovation was popular in his own way, combining these aesthetics with his interests in dark academia, global politics and drag performance. He extended himself to such a degree that critics would lament he would no longer represent their perception of “David Bowie”, completely missing the point of his art. So any comparison of a “new David Bowie” reflected less on the original artist, and more on simplified ideas which ultimately cannibalised the burn-marked protege.

Just ask Annie Clark. The guitar virtuoso known as St. Vincent burst into the mainstream consciousness 10 years ago after releasing her strange pop record, self titled and alien. Following three albums of deeply nervous, anxiety fuelled art-rock, she presented a fully developed alien stage-persona that would shuffle across the stage like a Space Age cartoon character. Of course she was immediately likened to Bowie: with her flamboyant queerness on full display and every hook drenched in some form of abstract compositional twist, it was a natural comparison to make.

But the weight of success and narrative pushed the art into the background. Follow up Masseduction was charismatic enough, but suffered Jack Antonoff’s soft-focus production, while 2021’s Daddy’s Home ultimately aligned itself with the then-popular 1970s nostalgia a lot of female-led indie pop at that time was striving for. All of a sudden, Clark found herself chasing the very artists she had inspired in the first place, not necessarily worse than them, but losing her unique identity while choosing costumes.

Quickly, awkward interviews were used to support new projections of who Clark is (“difficult”, “pretentious”, “aggressive”). The tone had mostly remained the same (St. Vincent interviews were always noted as having an air of performance art to them), but for the first time, Clark’s output was not strong enough to be the centre of attention.

Instead of digging in and continuing this trend of moderate, polite urban indie pop, All Born Screaming represents a bold shift of sonic palette. It is a more versatile, abrasive and memorable record than anything St. Vincent from the past decade – in fact it’s probably Clark’s best since 2011’s mighty Strange Mercy. It’s closer to Talk Talk’s It’s My Life than Let’s Dance, flirting with psychedelia and reggae, noise rock and minimalism, an ever-shifting attempt to create a perfect album. Self produced, but with the help of Cate Le Bon’s genius, All Born Screaming sounds joyful and summery, reconnecting with a golden age of New Wave music that was smart and sophisticated and didn’t hold back. It is, frankly, marvellous.

It’s hard to fully develop the images and snapshots Clark masters here, simply because so much of it is rendered through filters and effects, odd choir compositions or a particular, droning guitar effect that contradicts a funky riff. Closer “All Born Screaming” is a perfect example of this, at heart a quirky Talking Heads-style funky track that suddenly disintegrates to develop into a gothic club banger for its last three minutes.

Lead single “Broken Man” plays with tenderised industrial rock rhythm and bass sections, developing its intoxicating charm of inverting traditionally male aesthetics. The strong lyrics tie in with those themes, using christian imagery (“Lover, nail yourself right to me / If you go, I won’t be well / I can hold my arms wide open / But I need you to drive the nail”) to portray the sort of self-immolating relationship that she symbolically embodies in the accompanying video. There’s also “Big Time Nothing” – which embraces funk and spoken-word lyrics – and the heavy “Flea”, which both dissect late stage capitalism as a constant process of consumption and entropy, battling their central topics through singalong lyrics and groove.

One of the most surprising twists of the record is the enchanting “Violent Times”: taking the (allegedly unintentional) form of a James Bond-theme tune, the track allows Clark to show the full force of her singing voice, accompanying sharp horns and later in the song a darkly wailing guitar, producing one of the album’s most anxious moments. This emotion transports to the apocalyptic “The Power’s Out”, a strange sibling to Leonard Cohen’s “Memories” and Bowie’s “Five Years”: to the sound of a sleazy waltz, the narrator imagines a cataclysmic power outage, which results in suicides and murder, directly referencing scenes from the Ziggy Stardust opener (most noticeably with the line “It was pouring like a movie”, that seems to build off Bowie’s “And it was cold, and it rained, so I felt like an actor”). Besides expanding the idea of apocalyptic imagery in the Bowie cut, “The Power’s Out” hints at a constantly dying universe, that keeps slowly disintegrating, as players just return, re-enacting their parts with no ability of interference.

Yes, All Born Screaming is deeply pessimistic. Behind the goofy warble of “Sweetest Fruit” (which has hints of late 90s pop, ca. Texas), the Nine Inch Nails-like piano build-up of “Reckless” or the gorgeous landscapes of the prog-folk opener “Hell is Near” (that somewhat references Air’s “All I Need”) hides a deep shade of darkness, illuminating a singular voice – so quite like the iconic cover image of Clark on fire, illuminating a dark room through immolation.

All three songs ponder the immediate effects of death, sometimes in cryptic fashion. “Sweetest Fruit” is easiest to deduce, as it directly narrates the tragic passings of iconic musician SOPHIE and political cartoonist Daniel Sotomayor. “Hell is Near” imagines an abandoned, anonymous room (possibly another Bowie reference, this time from Outside‘s “The Motel”: “There ain’t no hell / Like an old Motel”?) that is filled with mementos of a previous tenant, all ashes and strewn records and marigolds (a common decoration during Mexico’s Day of the Dead) and half-burnt candles. “Reckless” is the strangest and most cryptic song on the album, serenading a person as they are passing away, draped in cinematic shades of doom, climaxing with electronic explosions – a song that could well fit on The Fragile.

The reggae of “So Many Planets” seems contradictory with its mid-80s island vibe, but ultimately ridicules its narrator, a possibly ageing has-been who loses their focus the further they travel, “dropping promises like H-bombs” and “falling asleep in the golden highway”. Among all the lost souls, it’s noteworthy how many of those images – the six pack of beer wielding lothario, Christ on the cross, policemen and junkies – debate and debase male stereotypes. Their incessant destruction – both self inflicted and projected outwards – feels like a form of religious cult, a higher purpose that feeds into an end only understood when observed from above. Like the apocalyptic riders, they herald complete societal destruction.

And yes, it is depressing that their contradictions – the queer woman who leaps in front of a train on “The Power’s Out” or SOPHIE as she falls to her death in the quest for the moon on “Sweetest Fruit” – meet a similar demise. In this, All Born Screaming finds the delicate balance of a deeply dark work of art that leaves the listener breathless with despair, while also commanding them to dance, or thrash around, or protest with their own body postures, flailing is the flames engulf them, trying to extinguish that what eats their flesh.

Yes, it is very hard to convey the sheer creative joy within these compositions Clark has come up with, but what’s more important is the bigger picture. And that is that St. Vincent can no longer be directly compared (or plagiarised). As from the beginning, Clark chooses references and quotations to enrich her work, but her music is never falling to its knees, never attempting to embody prior writers and musicians. It strives to use our knowledge of a shared past to create from its ashes, arguing that there is little time left, and no icons to hold up, as we anticipate the end. It’s a nightmare we wake up from – but a prophetic one, nonetheless, which we should heed as warning. It’s a blessing, simple as that!