Album cover with a woman on fire.

Review: St. Vincent – All Born Screaming


St. Vincent
All Born Screaming
Total Pleasure Records
Street: 04.26.2024
St. Vincent = Nine Inch Nails + Cate Le Bon + Chappell Roan

St. Vincent aka Annie Clark has been holding onto the album title All Born Screaming since 2006, ready to deploy at any fitting moment. She decided not to use it in her twenties or thirties because she didn’t consider herself “worthy.” It’s a title that points to a full spectrum of beauty and brutality, and Clark felt she had to earn it. Now further along in her steady ascent, Clark delivers All Born Screaming as a cultivated testimony of what the heart inevitably endures: love, death, sublime romance and vicious disappointment.

The album’s central principle is that suffering can be an escort to a place of significance—like signposts on a path through the forest. Contrary to storybook cliches of linear love and joy that pander to the inexperienced, Clark suggests “screaming is what it means to be alive.”

“Broken Man” further rejects the notion that humans are better off when they manage to dodge life’s emotional blows. Its menacing industrial rhythm (Dave Grohl on drums) is akin to what a steel mill worker might hear upon removing their ear protection and its chorus an anthem for downtrodden spirits that refuse to die. “Hey, what are you looking at? / Who the hell do you think I am? / Like you’ve never seen a broken man?”

On “Reckless,” Clark’s lyrics trace the mourning of a loved one, relating the experience to a boat without anchor, its portholes blown in by a merciless storm. Still, a crew of seafarers beckons to board for a new voyage. Another sanguine image emerges against the odds in “Violent Times” when “In the ashes of Pompeii / Lovers discovered in an embrace / For all eternity.” It isn’t that hope doesn’t exist, it just can’t be summoned whenever we feel like calling.

But offbrand optimism is just one of many possible interpretations. The self-produced seventh St. Vincent album doesn’t lend itself to clear-cut decoding. Clark’s songwriting is rich with misdirects and metaphors that leave listeners stranded. “Sweetest Fruit,” is Clark’s ode to the late SOPHIE, is propelled by the phrase “The sweetest fruit is on the limb,” an intriguing expression waiting on its assigned meaning.

Sonically, All Born Screaming stretches from ska and space rock to espionage ballads fit to score a GoldenEye reboot. “So Many Planets” is No Doubt’s “Underneath It All” from a parallel universe, but instead of cutesy questions of requited love, apocalyptic scenes of “misfiring chemicals, scary ideas, and H-bombs” contrast the laid back groove.

The album is compact and refined at just over 40 minutes, leaving listeners to wonder what remains of the “hours of post industrial dance music” that it was cut from. “Reckless” hits hard at its desperate crescendo, Clark screaming the titular word against a harsh digital snare that pounds like a marching war party.

All three singles are hard charging, noisy and not entirely representative of the album’s more introspective overarching timbre. “Big Time Nothing” is glammed-out art rock ala David Bowie and fit for a runway routine at an underground fashion show. David Ralicke from Dengue Fever makes his psychedelic contribution with horns straight out of “Pink Elephants on Parade.”

All Born Screaming travels through a labyrinth of genre, but it always feels on route, tagging waypoints of climax and calm rather than wandering aimlessly. Artists don’t need to earn their license to dip into varied pots of reference material, but Clark certainly has. Over a twenty year-career, St. Vincent has delivered doses of new wave, ambient rock, and funk—amongst dozens of other descriptors. Clark referred to All Born Screaming as “post-plague pop,” which is perhaps her way of expressing that it touches on all of the haunted islands in her vast sonic repertoire. After collaborating with contemporary popular music ace Jack Antonoff on her last two releases, Clark produced this one herself because, as she says, “there were sounds in my head that only I could render.”

Clark is notoriously reserved. Collaborator David Byrne expressed that, even after months of touring together, he felt he hardly knew her better than the day they met. She seems to prefer to let her music be her word, which itself is shrouded in mystery amidst widespread acclaim. Though All Born Screaming is difficult to file onto the record store shelves and loaded with puzzling language, it lifts Clark’s shroud of enigma, if only slightly. At the risk of speculation, this pop opera is a retrospective account of traveling to and returning from hell. After a thorough listen, the burning figure on the cover appears as the phoenix, rather than the doomed. –Austin Beck-Doss

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