St. Vincent Is Emboldened by Oblivion on 'All Born Screaming'

BY Kaelen BellPublished Apr 23, 2024


"Am I the only one in the only world?" Annie Clark sang in a panic 10 years ago, her question dying with a muted thud against the desert air. "Rattlesnake" opened 2014's St. Vincent with a personal apocalypse, a piece of sun-baked mythology that found Clark suddenly and completely alone, danger behind her and nothing ahead.

As St. Vincent, Clark has always kept one eye on the darkness at the end of humanity. Time and light exploded into oblivion on 2007's "The Apocalypse Song"; on Strange Mercy's "Northern Lights," she stood transfixed under the aurora, convinced the end had come; on Daddy's Home's "The Melting of the Sun," the atmosphere dripped red, while MASSEDUCTION's "Hang on Me" saw planes fall from the sky, the void back and unblinking. For all the generative exploration and live-wire momentum of Clark's nearly two decades of music, at its core, it's always been about the end of things.

All Born Screaming, Clark's incendiary seventh album, is her full-length treatise on this always-looming cataclysm — rather than point in fear at the impending horizon, she's finally tipped headfirst into the darkness. It's arguably the first St. Vincent album in a decade that hasn't come dressed with piles of precise framing; no steely eyed cult leaders, no latex-coated fame monsters, no wigged-out '70s cosplay. Despite the on-the-nose cover art and fire-and-brimstone sonics, All Born Screaming is finally free of Clark's strict thematic corsetry, able to breathe and flex without overbearing contextual restriction.

Perhaps because of this, she sounds more like herself than she has in years. After the clumsy costuming and reductive sounds of Daddy's Home — a record that, admittedly, I desperately wanted to like more than I actually didAll Born Screaming feels like a considered reset. Clark is once again toying with the future, bleak as it may be; synths pile like jujubes, guitars sputter and spark, songs become elastic and malleable, decades and genres colliding like atoms. If the stiff, bug-eyed NIN worship of lead single "Broken Man" had you worried, you can breathe a sigh of relief — it's the weakest song here, the only real moment that the album's industrial bent feels like gimmickry.

Elsewhere, Clark pulls some thrilling tricks with her newly aggressive palette. "Violent Times" — a stately, alternate-universe Bond theme rattled by bellowing horns and existential pleas for salvation — is the best song she's written since St. Vincent, a thunderous exaltation that sees Clark climbing her vocal register to oxygen-depleting peaks, wrestling with love at the end of the world with all the dramatic enormity that the topic deserves. The burbling, kinetic "Sweetest Fruit" is so stuffed with ideas that it should burn out; instead it soars like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a strange contraption of a song that nonetheless takes flight. A direct tribute to the late trailblazer SOPHIE that doubles as a wild-eyed pep talk — "The sweetest fruit is on the limb," Clark sings, one final reach before resignation — it piles serrated desert blues atop jelly-like synths and a surging Afrobeat rhythm.

The pure audacity of the sounds (Clark produced the entire record on her own, and its panoramic scapes sound uniformly fantastic) largely makes up for All Born Screaming's relative lack of intimacy and breathing room. There are no songs like Strange Mercy's "Champagne Year," no "I Prefer Your Love" or "New York." The closest Clark gets to a ballad is the sizzling guitar heroics of "The Power's Out," a lashing serpent of a song that finds Clark floating over a country in collapse, Columbia drifting toward nothing. The intensity is the point, but Clark doesn't entirely find her footing in the maelstrom until the record's second half, when she drops the play-acting ferocity of "Broken Man" and "Flea" for something closer to the bone.

Up until MASSEDUCTION, part of Clark's appeal was her mercurial remove, the wall of glass that kept you from touching the tender heart thrumming in her chest. In the decade-and-change since Strange Mercy, Clark has become more bold and more obvious, preferring to lift what was once subtext to the surface of her songs. In turn, her music has become both more confrontational and less confronting — sexuality, fear and simmering rage become less potent when they're so plainly presented.

Still, the record's first half mostly succeeds thanks to its whiplash-inducing mania. Lush, slow-burn opener "Hell Is Near" is followed by an even slower burn in "Reckless," a ghostly piano dirge that erupts into a flurry of crunching beats and embers of synth, magma bursting through the dead earth's crust. It's a patient start to a record that rarely lets its foot off the pedal once it hits the highway, a derangement best exemplified by the monstrous, brassy Moog-led groove of "Big Time Nothing."

All Born Screaming tends toward big ideas and big emotions, the wiry interiority of her earlier work burned away in favour of bold, wide-screen gestures, every song an epitaph for a world and a life that you'll never get back. She tackles artistic responsibility, lost memory, damaged love and prickling rage with the desperation of an action star hanging from the ledge. Doom permeates the whole thing, but Clark enlivens it with a sense of excited exploration — the end that she's been eyeing for so long has finally arrived, and she sounds emboldened by the freedom she's found in facing oblivion.

By the time Clark closes things out on the alien two-tone of "So Many Planets" and the Cate Le Bon-featuring title track — a seven-minute epic that starts as the record's most spritely composition before morphing into its most imperious, a march into the flames of armageddon — her fears have softened slightly, her anger sapped into something that sounds like acceptance. When Clark sings "I have to visit so many planets / Before I find my own" on "So Many Planets," it feels like a comment on the entire St. Vincent project; an admittance that she understands the journey better than before, though it's not quite over yet. On All Born Screaming, Clark sounds more at home than she has in a while, but all planets inevitably die — perhaps the next one she lands on will finally be her own.


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