St. Vincent - Actor
Record Label: 4AD Records
Release Date: May 5, 2009
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark has often been described as an indie pixie, and she used classic Disney cartoons as muses when writing Actor. It should come as no surprise then that the album sounds like a dark coming-of-age story of an idealized Disney princess being rudely thrust into modern reality and struggling to deal with it.
The dynamic that really stands out throughout Actor is the way Clark uses the contrast between soft orchestral sounds and noisy electrical chaos to mirror the psyche of the heroine. When she is in a stable, sane state the instrumentals are light and soft. They reflect a perceived clarity and peace of mind. However, when things get fuzzed out and distorted, it signals mental instability. The two opposites seem to be in a constant struggle, which makes for a fascinating psychological portrait and gripping listen. Is the heroine’s unblinking stare through the rough times a sign of strength or a mask to keep face as she’s twitching, tweaking, and cracking below the surface?
As the journey sets off on woodwinds driven “The Strangers,” St. Vincent hints at the troubles to come, but everything seems so lighthearted and the transgressions are merely minor misfortunes that can be shaken off like “Playboys under the mattress.” The first jolt comes when the song’s serene scene is disrupted by a dirty distorted guitar solo. It’s a glimpse of the volatility to come.
The mood swiftly shifts as “Save Me From What I Want” uses pseudo hip-hop beat to convey a yearning for the forbidden, a sentiment that continues on “The Neighbors.” She finally caves to her desires on the uptempo “Actor Out of Work,” admitting, “I think I love you, I think I’m mad.” And thus begins the fall from grace.
The toll of the world is certainly frying at her mind on “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” as she admits “All of my old friends aren’t so friendly, and all of my out haunts are haunting me.” By “Marrow,” even the princess can see she’s spiraling insanely out of control, but her synth-backed literal cries for help fall on deaf ears. But suddenly the barrage of noise ends and there is a return to the calmer woodwinds. It’s not that the lass has her senses about her, as the lyrical shakiness of “The Bed” proves, it is that she is mentally gone by this point. Her baseline is now this cracked state, so it feels normal, feels calm, despite being light years away from the rationale per she used to be. She will never be the naive innocent she once was. She’s seen things she can’t unsee and done things she can’t undo.
Actor has a firm understanding of beauty in opposite forces: the contained and the wild, smooth melody and fuzzy cacophony, sweet purity and brooding darkness. Maybe that’s why even when things get ugly, St. Vincent’s music remains so damn pretty.