Having worked in the 13- to 27-member Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’s sprawling ensemble, Annie Clark obviously knows how to be a team player. Yet the talented Tulsa-born singer-songwriter clearly has more than enough good ideas of her own, as demonstrated by her ambitious bow Marry Me, released under the nom de plume St. Vincent.
Those who wonder how one follows an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink album like that get their answer with Actor—St. Vincent’s grand, bolder and even more assured sophomore opus. A study in the contrast between chaos and order, the record matches the emotional grandeur of carefully composed movie scores thanks to Clark’s more anarchic electric-guitar tendencies. Songs such as “The Strangers” and “Black Rainbow” envision an alternate history in which brainy prog-shredders like Robert Fripp wrote MGM musicals. Clark is equally adept when she reins in her artier instincts to offer askew pop numbers like the snappy, echoing and string-laden “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” and the Peter Pan timpani and pipes whimsy of “The Bed.”
If there’s a downside to Clark’s virtuosity and precise vision, it’s that her intricately imagined soundscapes and furious flights of fancy sometimes come off as precious and stilted. But stilted is far from sterile. With Clark’s crazed balloon-artist compulsion to twist the familiar and comfortable into something unrecognizable and exciting, Actor is beguiling and oddly giddying.