New St. Vincent Album ‘All Born Screaming’ Is the Best Score for the End of the World

If there is a musician working today whose finger is more on the pulse of our sometimes exhilarating, sometimes grinding public discourse on art and life than Annie Clark, I can’t imagine who that might be.

Since 2007, Clark’s St. Vincent project has churned out one unbelievably good album after another, all featuring a new persona built in Clark’s imagination and directly responding to some crises we’re experiencing as a collective or something she’s experiencing personally. In each, both her songwriting and composition have proven time and again how thoughtful, meticulous, and enigmatic she is in her approach to making music. While not always vulnerable, Clark has, over the years, developed a unique intimacy through her deployment of ironic artifice that appears detached from the subjects of her songs yet ultimately reveals a different kind of attachment, a new way of moving through emotion. All Born Screaming, her new album and her first self-produced album, marks a significant turn from the fabrications of past St. Vincents.

For the first time since her debut, the tracks on All Born Screaming aren’t threaded together by a shared compositional aesthetic. Instead, Clark’s given herself space to explore multiple genres and incorporate new musical elements that, despite their differences, work quite well together as a whole. If you judged the album from the two opening tracks, you wouldn’t be right about where it goes. As with her general attitude towards art and music making, Clark’s enthusiasm for misleading our attentions and expectations are playfully exhibited here, creating a surprising mix of tracks that explore everything from the possibility of personal renaissance to grief over the loss of loved ones (both close to her and not). Clark vacillates between hopelessness and a deep belief — in what is also my own personal maxim — that despite everything, there is beauty all around us and it is ours for the taking. Here, we not only get Clark — fully and entirely her — but we also get a litany of tracks designed to not only address our current apocalypse, but help us see our way through.

The album’s openers, “Hell Is Near” and “Reckless,” are good examples of this. The former finds our narrator amidst a bleak scene of “empty cups,” “a half-burned candle,” and “ash” on the floor but there are also letters and records and “a can full of marigolds.” “Signs of life, the beginning, the beginning / Our beginning, begin again,” sings Clark over the low-volume war drums, discordant guitars, and ethereal synths. This industrial but wistful composition launches us straight into the latter, a song that leaves us in the middle of storms and ships lost at sea as Clark’s narrator describes the experience of watching someone die. What begins as a melancholic piano ballad quickly explodes into an electronic soundscape as Clark’s voice howls, “If your love was an anchor, then I am lost at sea.”

From the openers, the next two tracks, “Broken Man” and “Flea,” have some of Clark’s most volatile and romantic songwriting yet. Over a metallic drum machine beat, the narrator of “Broken Man” uses messianic imagery out to a lover and begs for their commitment: “Lover, nail yourself right to me / If you go, I won’t be well / I can hold my arms wide open / But I need you to drive the nail.” The throbbing, swaggering bassline of “Flea” ushers in some of the most unsettling yet passionate lyrics on the album, depicting love as a kind of infestation between lovers and their bodies: “Once I’m in, you can’t get rid of me.” Sauntering bassline leads into an alt-rock crescendo as Clark sings, “Drip you in diamonds, pour you in cream / You will be mine for eternity.” These two tracks appearing back to back on the album help close out the first half of the album, a cutting examination of Clark’s feelings on living through loss and love but without getting too deep into the specifics of each situation. Clark strikes a delicate balance between the mystery of old St. Vincent and the new thrashing into being.

At the midpoint of the album, Clark’s introspection turns outward towards the world at large. The James Bond theme-inspired “Violent Times” kind of goes exactly where you would expect it to with that title but the bright yet woeful mood and groove of the track keeps you interested. On “The Power’s Out,” Clark writes a love letter eulogy to New York City in the end times. The bassline comes to the fore again here, but this time it’s terse, almost shotty, backed by the rhythms of a slide guitar that seamlessly blend into the drone of the synth. Clark’s narrator tells us the world is ending, but it doesn’t mean all is lost. Clark’s voice rises from the almost monotone-feeling beat to remind us, “The power’s out / And no one can save us / No one can blame us now / That the power’s out.” The proposition might seem heartbreaking on first listen, but it’s the freedom of not being responsible for the collapse that gives Clark (and us) the freedom to pick up and move forward.

Prior to the album’s release, there was talk of a tribute to trans electronic musician and producer SOPHIE being included on the tracklist, and she delivered on “Sweetest Fruit.” In an interview with The Guardian, Clark explained, “The internet twists things, and I don’t want it to be seen like I’m trying to capitalize on somebody’s death. I was an admirer from afar, we never met, but I read about the way that she fell because she was trying to get a better look at the moon, which was just the most beautiful, poetic thing I’ve ever heard.” And if you listen to the track, I think that reverence is more than apparent. The song, which specifically discusses SOPHIE’s tragic death and also celebrates the courage of artists who take big risks in their works and lives, features a mash of electronic beats that are pulled from several influences and genres similar to the work SOPHIE produced in her short life. Over the boppy electropop, Clark sings, “The sweetest fruit / Is on the limb” to remind us that we’re never going to meet our potential without reaching for it.

The album closes most satisfyingly with the title track “All Born Screaming,” a seven minute anthem that not only features fellow musician Cate Le Bon but also a full choir of other voices. Like so much of the rest of the album, the track once again highlights Clark’s ability to play with our perceptions and undermine our anticipation. What starts out as bright and bouncy — Le Bon’s own music seemingly served as a kind of inspiration here — turns into a whirring, buzzing outro of instruments and voices, all reminding us we’re “all born screaming.” Put in the hands of another musician, this message might come off as pessimistic, but in Clark’s hands, it’s a stunning reminder that we’re all connected — for better or worse — through the fact of what we are: human beings trying to survive in the face of what feels like inevitable destruction.

And this connection is what we can use to help keep other people alive, to birth a new way of being with and for ourselves and each other. It’s a simple conceit, but one that bears repeating, especially now as we fight back against the fascism surrounding us and try to carve a path toward liberation for us all. Clark proves her assertions are true over and over on the album, giving us one of the best scores to bump as we’re barreling towards the end of the world.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I preordered the vinyl and I can’t wait for it to sound dreadfuly bad on my speakers from the 80’s.
    I am so glad that I made the decision last year to finally check her music out after reading about her around here for yeeears and being like Ok who is sheee? Now I am like, yeah I totally get it. She’s a fun artist to follow because you never quite know what to expect and it looks like she is having fun not only with making music but the visuals, the performance, the persona, everything. They are like toys in her hands and it’s just a fun ride.
    Also, I do watch her interviews and such, but I don’t care about the specifics of her private life that much, but I love hearing her talk about the process of making songs, or nerd out about pieces of equipment or other musicians or whatever. The contrast of having a flair of mistery about her while also demistifying the process being like, it’s work, or yeah it did this and that or literally it’s just practice is really refreshing.

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