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Annie Clark, who performs under the moniker St. Vincent for her solo works, is an American singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. She performed for several years as a component of the Christian mega-group The Polyphonic Spree. Marry Me is her debut solo album, released in 2007.
There are no false starts with the first track. "Now Now" is lyrically simple but instrumentally complex introduction, a strong choice to demonstrate St. Vincent's talents on a variety of instruments. The lyrics themselves are rather straightforward, spoken in metaphor, about a stomped-on individual coming into their own: "I'm not your mother's favorite dog / I'm not the carpet you walk on / I'm not one small atomic bomb / I'm not anything at all." While the song is focused on what Annie Clark definitely isn't, the melody suggests what she certainly is: a talented guitarist. As the lyrics suggest a gain in confidence, the music becomes more gnarled and complex, rising to a crescendo as a choir of children chant: "You don't mean that say you're sorry / You don't mean that say you're sorry / You don't mean that say you're sorry / You don't mean that I'll make you sorry..."
After such a darkly prominent first track you'd be forgiven to think "Jesus Saves, I Spend" feels an incongruous continuation. Moving briskly along at 6/8, it almost has a Christmas carol joviality to it, as mirrored by the lyrics: "While people are spinning like toys on Christmas day / I'm inside a still life with the other absentee." Seemingly an eccentric mediation, in both lyrics and melody, on the schism between the teachings of the Bible and the lore of capitalism:
"While Jesus is saving, I'm spending all my days / in the garden-grey pallor of lines across your face / While people will cheer on the spectacle we've made / I'm sitting and sculpting menageries of saints."
Overall it has a very bouncy and fun feel to it, and as such is almost the perfect single, but this is about as sunny as Marry Me gets as we venture back into the shade with the next track...
The third track on the album, Your Lips Are Red, is an emotionally distorted song with abstract imagery pervading the lyrics, ("My face is drawn on with this number 2 pencil") dominated by a thrumming drumbeat and overtones of sex and jealousy. Though it begins as sinewy and deliberate, the latter half of the song breaks like the drop off of an adrenaline rush and has a strangely pure, ecclesiastical feeling to it with the overlaying of violins and insect-like guitar tempo: "Your skin's so fair," St. Vincent sings, her voice rising as if soaring to the top of a cathedral, "it's not fair."
Perhaps it's this gentle desperation that is carried on to, and distilled, in the eponymous title track "Marry Me". Clark expertly juxtaposes instrumentally-arranged naivete and cynical lyricism: "Marry me John, marry me John / I'll be so good to you / You won't realise I'm gone". The antithesis of a fulfilling relationship takes shape as Clark sings about a yearning for security that she can never allow herself to satisfy, moving from one night stand to one night stand ("as for me, I would have to agree / I'm as fickle as a paper doll / Being kicked by the wind / When I touch down again / I'll be in someone else's arms") but continuing to be owned by some imaginary John: "But you, you're a rock with a heart / Like a socket I can plug into at will / And will you guess when I come around next? / I hope your open sign is blinking still". It's to this John she must communicate via enforced childishness, as she can only refer to sex as "what married people do", despite obvious experiences with other people. The repetition of "you won't realise I'm gone", despite Clark's unwavering vocal delivery, is one of the saddest lyrics on the album, especially as it pertains to someone she ostensibly wishes to spend her life with, who remains ignorant to her passivity and adultery, and the implied fear of loneliness that drives her.
Paris Is Burning is that woven similarly to the dark elegance of Your Lips Are Red and expands on it with a sultry Weimar waltz in synths, strings and vaguely militant drumbeats. There is subtle anachronism abound in the lyrics of this song - from Shakespeare ("Come sit right here and sleep / While I slip poison in your ear") to WWII ("we are waiting on a telegram to give us news of the fall / I am sorry to report dear Paris is burning after all") while the paranoia of post-traumatic-stress is evoked in the bridge: "I'm on your side when nobody is / 'cos nobody is..." brought stinging to the present with the line, "Enclosed in this letter there's a picture / Black and white for your refridgerator". Though it's easy to assume Clark's political agenda is lurking between the lines here, the sheer joy Clark takes in bringing out the abstract beauty of chaos and hell comes to the fore and washes away such cynicism. Interestingly, in the live version, Clark sings "you remind me... of city graffiti", but this lyric is imperceptible in the studio version.
To skip over the next song, All My Stars Aligned for the benefit of continuing this train of thought, Apocalypse Song is almost the antithesis of Paris Is Burning. Sharing the second shortest track duration (tied with All My Stars Aligned, actually) it's fitting that such a brief song encapsulates the shortness of human existence: "Wait, I'll be swifter / Than the speed of light / Carbon my body a billion years of time" and how devotion - to the Lord or to a lover - counts for nothing in the yawning chasm of eternity: "all your praying moments amount to just one breath". Something I personally find fascinating is the duplicitous nature of St. Vincent's lyrics, especially in interpretation, and nowhere in this album is it more keenly felt than in Apocalypse Song. Whereas the first few verses seem to be quite specific, the last two pan out to reveal a broader spectrum of thought: "So take to the streets with apocalypse refrain / Your devotion has the look of a lunatic's gaze", which could also be interpreted as some sort of Doom's Day cult overtone and would fit in with Clark's interspersed religious commentary. However, unlike Your Lips Are Red, the instrumental arrangement throughout is consistent (if more simplified than the former track) without the sudden sheer acoustic cliff-face Your Lips Are Red threw itself off in the middle of the song.
All My Stars aligned is a stylistic divergence, a lush and languid offering predominantly in piano. Despite the slower tempo and Clark's luscious vocals, the lyrics seem to be about relationship anxiety: "I got all my stars aligned / My amulets, my charms / I set all my false alarms / So I'll be someone / Who won't be forgotten. [...] I check my palms / The cracks in the sidewalk / My visions and my dreams / I cross all my fingers / That you'll be someone / That won't be forgotten." Musically, this song features some subtle sampling of John Barry's James Bond Theme as well as the sounds of waves crashing on the shore, along with the cello and a choir. Despite the somewhat distressing nature of the song, St Vincent keeps it wry with the line: "What was your question? / ... Love is the answer."
We Put a Pearl In the Ground is a lyricless intermezzo on piano composed by Mike Carson (who has worked with David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, et al). A melancholy but sweet little tune, it lasts only just over a minute long and is pretty forgettable but bleeds quite poetically into the next track, Landmines.
From the very first moment, Landmines manages to sound both vaguely underwater and buzzy with static simultaneously. Referencing the previous song with, "I'm crawling through landmines / Just to feel where you are / Under cover of night I put a pearl in the ground", the lyrics paint a picture of someone desperate to stay in a relationship even with a controlling and abusive partner: "I'm crawling through landmines / Just to feel where you've been / There's gauze over my eyes / But you're leaving this trail." Even when she realises all she's doing is prolonging her agony ("I'm crawling through landmines / I know cause I planted them / Under cover of night I put my heart in the ground") she is too far gone to give up, and the song ends with Clark repeating hopeless, generic sentiments, "oh my love, oh my dear..."
Human Racing, rather like the snappily titled Jesus Saves, I Spend, has a lighter melody in minor key, starting off bossa-nova and becoming more melancholic as the lyrics explore literary characters separated from their other halves: "Mary, dear, how you feel? / Are you lost without your lamb? / You know I think I understand." Clark's wit resurfaces in the next verse: "Tell the truth now / Your heart is a strange little orange to peel / What's the deal?" The eclectic string instruments compliment the hand-claps and Clark's characteristically gorgeous voice. Human Racing also obliquely references religion in the lines, "Little lamb, what's your plan? / Greener pastures in the sky? / it's a shame you want to die know why / Just to find you've been blinded to the greenest of pastures / they're right here on Earth." The song then dips into the melancholic with the repeated final line: "For what it's worth you're not the first to break my heart..." over hypnotic beats that take us to the fade out.
The final song on the album, What Me Worry?, is a downbeat jazz-influenced number and probably my favourite track on this album and perhaps of all St. Vincent's work. To me, this song is inextricably tied to the a certain type of character - amused, but impassive; to quote Goldfrapp, "so cool... you're hardly there".
What Me Worry seems to be the logical next step after Marry Me; a woman trapped in a cold, co-dependent passive-aggressive relationship planning to make her leave. Whereas All My Stars Aligned and Landmines have a gnawing anxiety feeding at the root of Clark's creativity, What Me Worry is the diametric opposite: our narrator is calm, collected, conspiring to make her exit. Not only is her relationship empty and cold but she seems to feel the same way about the society she is in: "Sans le fear of impending doom / Life is like banquet food: pleasure to peruse".
However, not content with simply leaving, her motivations are very eloquently in the two couplets, one in the first verse, "Do I amuse you, dear? / Would you think me queer / if while standing beside you I opted instead to disappear?" and echoed in the second, "Have I abused you, dear? You have had it to here / You say, "Love is just a bloodmatch to see who / endures lash after lash / with panache..." Only when she is confident she can inflict the most hurt on her partner can she "stuff my suitcase full of blues / and stir the dust underneath the thrust of my clicking heels". This is a fitting exit for the last track on the album, ending with just a faint tinkle on the triangle, like a door snapping shut on St. Vincent's debut.
Overall, Marry Me is one of my favourite albums because of consistently strong, passionate tracks pulling influences from a variety of musical backgrounds. As a debut work it is unbelievably strong, and Annie Clark has set self apart from her musical roots as St Vincent. Lyrically, she explores some themes that some would label dark, but all are irrevocably tied to the human condition, conveyed with a brutal sincerity alongside beautifully played instruments.
MP3 Download: £5.90
Original Release Date: 9 July 2007
Label: Beggars Banquet
Copyright: 2007 Beggars Banquet Ltd
Total Length: 43:38