Recently, I made the mistake of trying to listen to St. Vincent’s Actor at work. I call it a mistake, partially because this album begs more attention than it gets as the soundtrack to my pink ukulele sales pitch, but also because I’ve become accustomed to listening to it on vinyl, in my living room, very loudly. Background levels of volume at the music store hardly does it justice, and left me wanting, so I played it again on the bus over my headphones, and yet again when I got home on the record player where it was truly meant to be.
I have no qualms describing Actor as a work of art. Themes and images run deep beneath thick textures boasting of driving rhythms and catchy-as-hell melodies and counter-melodies(whether sung or played on sax or violin, I can be heard whistling St. Vincent melodies daily). As the title suggests, the album explores the line between fake and real, authenticity and invention, especially in the portrayal of personas and primarily in the likely setting of the suburban neighborhood. Nearly every song is linked by foundational questions of how well we are really known by our lovers, friends and family, introduced right off the bat in “Strangers”. As I let these questions percolate, I can’t help but wonder what part her stark headshot on the album cover plays, and indeed, even her use of pseudonym (her given name being Annie Clark). How well do we know this woman who serenades us? Who is she really? How thick a line separates who we are from who we present ourselves to be?
When I break from philosophizing, I appreciate St. Vincent’s sense of orchestration. Like listening to Radiohead, you know know that every sound has been placed by a perfectionist – with utmost precision – so that even the most chaotic moments are fully controlled. Also like Radiohead, St. Vincent loves to experiment with extreme clarity and distortion, yet somehow is never beyond accessible. Strings, horns, and a rhythm section give Actor
the epic feel of a movie soundtrack that is mostly rock and roll, but transforms itself when necessary to jazz or even Broadway-esque. Her rhythms are intensely controlled, creating a contrast against her almost lazy vocals.
One thing that I find so beautiful about listening to this on vinyl is that it seems intentionally divided into two acts, moving the final song on the CD, “The Sequel” to the end of Side A, allowing for the bouncy “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” to be heard as a new beginning, and concluding the album with “Just the Same but Brand New”, which I never even noticed before hearing it as the final track.
Although the songs of this album feel completely tied to one another, in an attempt to take angled digs at the same subject, I feel as though I respond to each one differently: During “Strangers”, I’m philosophizing; “Save Me from What I Want” has me grooving with my shoulders while I drink my beer; “The Neighbors” gets me moody; “Actor out of Work” gives me an all-out desire to dance; “Black Rainbow” has me singing the lines of the violins and horns out-loud; “The Sequel” allows me to sink back into my head, before I’m brought back to reality when I flip to Side B and hear “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood”; I can’t not rock out to “Marrow” before settling into my thinky-ness as “The Bed” brings me a sense of mystery in the world, though it doesn’t make me want to actually lie down in bed like “The Party” ironically tends to; and finally “Just the Same but Brand New” pulls me full-circle to a nostalgic questioning of meaning in the world. And I don’t regret the experience for a minute. Just writing this blog gives me such an impatience for this woman’s next work of art. But for now, let’s watch this great video: