Annie Clark doesn’t go by Annie Clark. It’s not simply a matter of performing under the moniker St. Vincent, though that’s certainly part of it. It also has to do with the way she tends to shape a new identity within the contours of each album.
“I feel like every record that I make, there’s some sort of archetype that tends to emerge,” says Clark. “On ‘Strange Mercy,’ it was like [a] housewife on white wine and barbiturates. On ‘Love This Giant’ [recorded with David Byrne], it was a little bit beauty-and-the-beast, but David was beauty and I was the beast; that was the idea for the visual component. And on this record, the thing that started to emerge was near-future cult leader. So I chased after that archetype."
The record in question is the outstanding new “St. Vincent,” Clark's fourth solo album and first since 2012’s brass-heavy Byrne collaboration. It’s the latest in a series of releases that have established St. Vincent (who plays the House of Blues on Thursday) as a performer who chases after whatever archetypes she chooses. She’s practically a walking advertisement for the value of a Berklee education, or she would be, if she hadn’t left the music college three years in.
“It’s a hard premise, a music school,” Clark says. “It’s hard. It’s not even like it’s a business school or something, where there’s some semblance of, ‘Oh, yeah, when you graduate, there will be jobs. You can have a job. Yeah, yeah, pay this money, you get this education, because there is a job waiting for you.’ You really have to forge your own path.”
She continues to do precisely that on “St. Vincent,” which comes out Tuesday. It’s a far sleeker affair than “Love This Giant,” hinting at the sideways guitar heroics of her earlier works while foregrounding electronics to an extent that’s new for her. Regardless, Clark views the album as a perfectly logical followup to her last project.
“I started writing this record right after I came back from the first leg of the ‘Love This Giant’ tour,” she says. “People were . . . exuberant, and there was dancing during those shows. So I wanted to take that danceability into whatever I did next.”
But danceability doesn’t mean Clark has sacrificed the complexity that’s marked her writing from the first song of her debut. “St. Vincent” features songs that seem to fold back on themselves, so that even a simple rock riff like the one that anchors “Regret” seems as though it’s been turned inside out. All music is fundamentally mathematics; Clark’s songs are like pop music built from fractals.
“First of all, I do love that word,” she says. “I can see what you mean. Sometimes there will be a melody and then it’ll be double time, and then it’ll be half-time. Sometimes, I’ll take an entire section, a passage of chords or music, and then just invert them to make it for the second verse or the second time around. So there’s a lot of, ‘Here’s the mirror image of where we just were.’ . . . It’s just the negative space.”
That sort of modular, almost clinical approach to songwriting bleeds into Clark’s visual aesthetic as well, from the rigidly geometric album cover to “St. Vincent” — with the enthroned performer-cum-cult-leader imperiously staring down the buyer and the letters “St. V” abstracted to mere shapes — to the mechanistic video for “Digital Witness.” Filmed in semi-abandoned parts of Madrid, which director Chino Moya refers to as “a very dystopian city,” the video portrays a lockstep existence in a landscape of empty space, solid blocks of color and crisp, clean lines. Considering how Clark sometimes synesthetically views the songs she writes in visual terms (she mentions, for instance how “Regret” feels “like it’s very green and open to me, if that makes any sense” and refers to the song’s “color palette”), it’s perfectly in keeping with the music she’s created.
“They didn’t mention it directly, but I thought that they were looking for something kind of futuristic, with bold visuals, something that somehow could make a comment about our modern world,” says Moya. “I imagined a simplified world with a basic color palette, something a bit like the world of Playmobil toys or LEGO, a reality that looks almost virtual, but it’s still real.”
It’s a reality overseen, just like on her album cover and in her music itself, by Clark, a performer who, in choosing her stage name (an intersection of references to Dylan Thomas, Nick Cave, and her own great-grandmother), elevated herself to sainthood. Her reasoning for using a pseudonym in the first place was purely pragmatic, since there are other musical Anne Clarks out in the world, who include among their ranks an English songwriter and spoken-word artist. “I don't want to be confused [with them],” says the one who goes by St. Vincent, as if at this point she could be mistaken for anyone else.Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.