This is, in part, a non-review. I did not see the music artist known as St. Vincent on her recent tour because she left me cold. But I’ve warmed to her new album. This is therefore a late review of this album and and a discourse on cold pop music; cold core.
St. Vincent is one of the most compelling new artists in rock and pop to emerge in recent years. I loved her 2011 album, Strange Mercy, and went to the live show that accompanied the album. It was precisely calibrated and sonically immaculate. She has a great voice and is an incredible guitar player. But nothing happened; well hardly anything visceral, fleshy and throbbing. The show, probably configured in a rehearsal room in Brooklyn months earlier, was enacted in a ‘here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier’ fashion. The monitor guy hit ‘return’ on an off-stage laptop and the show was re-called, loaded and run like a Powerpoint. Where was the ‘liveness’?
Based on this I didn’t attend her recent tour and hadn’t checked out her latest album — simply titled St. Vincent — until this week. It continues and elaborates her style: a spare, crunchy assemblage of hard distorted grooves, glitchy electro splutters and all-to-rare moments of brilliant, buzzy, scattergun electric guitar playing counterpointed by a fantastic voice. It is artful, clever, challenging music in a pop frame; my kind of music.
Why was I was turned off by St. Vincent’s distance and remove as a live artist? I watched some of her recent live performances online. She performs the single from the album, Digital Witness, using choreographed robotic head gestures. Over multiple performances of the same song I see the same moves. She executes the song. Yep — still cold.
The album, however, while stark and alienated, produces warmth. It’s a music that is precisely made but riven with digital surface noise and crackling sonic malfunctions. Warmth is produced by these sonic fractures — like metal fatigue or overheating circuit boards. There’s heat in distortion – ask any fan of dirty guitars. While many songs deal in dislocation and disassociation from the world and from the self, there are antidote songs. I Prefer Your Love, a tangential love song to her mother, is one example; ‘I love you, Mom’ is as un-digital as you can get.
St. Vincent’s project seems to be to explore digital age alienation and its personality-disorienting side effects. She means to be distant and cold. Other artists have been here before. Cold pop music – cold core – was popularised in the Post-Punk era. Artists like John Foxx, Gary Numan, and their less-electro cousins like Joy Division pioneered a pop sound that was stark and alienated. It was cold like England’s North, like brutalist architecture, like barren cement underpasses.
St. Vincent reprises many of the sonic and melodic tropes of this mannered, droopy-fringed post-punk era. Her melodies make odd ball disjunctive leaps, her voice occasionally assuming a Lena Lovich-like mania. The sonic vocabulary of rock — drums, bass, guitar, keyboards — is present but truncated and re-configured. Drums are clipped and thuddy. Analog synths swoop and growl. There is nothing rockist here. The sound and sensibility is jittery and angular. This reconstituted familiarity is usually startling and interesting. Occasionally, however, it simply feels like I’ve heard it before. I Prefer Your Love, as gorgeous as it is, recalls the melodic foreground and mellotron backdrop of Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes in a distracting way.
St. Vincent has her superb voice to warm up this digital dystopia; pure of timbre, able to carry beautiful melodies then turn breathy, twitchy and agitated. It’s as if alienation and the effort to repress anxiety produces neurotic heat. David Byrne — a one-time collaborator of St. Vincent’s and another removed and mannered performer — helped pioneer the same effect when yelping Pychokiller. The excellent documentary, Synth Britannia, pointed out that cold electronic music of the early ’80s got a blast of convulsive shock therapy when ‘hot’ singers were added to the impassive synth backing: Marc Almond’s passionate caterwauling over Tainted Love and the early work of Annie Lennox with the Eurythmics are examples.
The kings of cold, and the inspiration for many of those cold core Brits, were and are Kraftwerk. I saw them live a few years ago. Four men hovered over laptops — it looked like they were completing tax returns. Meanwhile amazing images played on screens behind them. The music was clear, clean and overwhelming. It glistened like an ice sculpture. The human was consumed by the machine to ineffable effect. A new kind of soul was evinced. It was beautiful. I was moved to tears.
Philip Auslander points out in his book, Liveness, that live performances are increasingly mediated by technology. He says rock audiences still cling to the idea that live music is (seemingly) enacted by sweaty, druggy people and this stance endows the act with bogus authenticity; Keef is ‘keeping it real’ … under a computerised light show and giant video screens. Bowie, another progenitor of cold core, was distant and mannered. He got away with it because his ‘act’ – an androgynous, coked-up, fellating alien – was mythically mirrored in his ‘real’ life at the time. It was a ‘hot’ act so this helped.
Kraftwerk, however, nudging their touch pads and scrolling through their menus with teutonic chill, show us that liveness does not have to be a sweaty, spontaneous, real-time creation. Sometimes prepared precision and coldness produces a visceral live experiences of clarity and beauty.
I’ve come to realise that my relationship to St. Vincent and her work grapples with the distinction between the artist we witness live and the art they have recorded. Thanks to this album I’m thawing, turning back into a fan. I love her voice, guitar playing and those crackly, glitchy sounds. Some of these songs will stay with me. Who knows if I would still be disappointed in her live shows? Often at a live show I long to ‘meet’ the performer. I don’t want them to lose their mystique or ‘blow their cool’. I just want them to show a little sign that they are in the room with me; share a tiny gesture, unique to this night only. I don’t mind if it’s flowing from a computer or spewing out of a mouth.
On record, however, I only need to meet the art, not the artist. Records are fixed, frozen assemblages of performative and sonic gestures. St. Vincent has captured something precise yet fractured, distant yet intriguing. It’s not cold but it’s perfect winter listening.