" What's this frankly bizarre video all about, 'Spillers? What does it all mean? "
Blimpy recently was intigued enough about the St. Vincent video of Marrow to pose the above questions. It was the first time I'd come across Annie Clark. I thought - wow something special here, posted a reply saying as much - then set about a more thorough study. Time to put my Pseud Hat on.
I have to say again at the outset - she has an extraordinary sensibility, and extraordinary musical abilities to match. This is rare in music (or any other art - we could be talking painting here) - rarer than usual, but not bizarre or weird. She's doing all she can to give shape to the shape she's in. It's what we all have to deal with every day - it's just that with this particular degree of sensibility and level of musical accomplishment (she plays/engineers pretty much everything) it makes for a match you don't see that often.
What we're seeing and hearing is someone struggling to make sense of their life, their predicament. And it seems a battle, or at least a clash. This isn't easy listenin'. This isn't just the usual rub of life's rough edges catching against the smooth - the stuff you and I deal with. For her it seems that violence and calm have to be fixed in a kind of stasis, kept in a perfect balance. They are warring elements - elemental forces - that she keeps control of by means of balanced/opposed word pairings, and by sound colours/textures/intensities set off against eachother. It runs through all her songs, not just these lines:
Muscle connects to the bone
And the bone to the iron in the marrow
I wish I had a gentle mind and a spine made up of iron
Mouth connects to the teeth
And teeth to the loves and curses
Muscle is soft and flexible - bone is hard and rigid. Loves balance curses. She has a formidable intellect, that's clear : but is it too sharp/too critical? She wishes it were less hard-edged : that the toughness could go elsewhere and be more useful to keep her strong.
And in between it all, she's insisting on connections. So these aren't just simple statements of opposites - they're all joined up somehow in a body. We are where these antitheses live. Which for us, is generally in a state of uneasy accommodation. For her I suspect, they are locked in mortal combat. You think I exaggerate? You should listen to the long inexorable climax to Black Rainbow. Play it as loud as she plays it on stage, and you'd be shook. This is a slim stylishly-dressed young woman wrestling with her daemons.
Meanwhile what's happening onscreen? It's a road. A long straight road in the middle of nowhere? That, at my age, would seem to be a young person looking at life. My 'road dream' would be considerably shorter. And who's coming up behind? Is it a slow-crawling rapist, or a friendly local? And the blank-faced couple (with daughter as part of) is that a fan-belt problem or a family break-down?
These and other encounters along the way are all seen as either/both/neither threatening, then disturbing - then . . . unimportant. She turns her back on all of them. They still follow, because you can't erase the past, but they have lost, for the moment, all power over her. Or only as long as she keeps singing. Menace and comfort are present in all these little scenes: the family, the cop, the hoodies, the bike, the sheep. Ordinary in context - surreal out of.
And the shrine by the roadside? That starts and ends the video? You think I'd leave a little thing like the ephemeral inconsequentiality of religion out of it (simply because I'd almost completly forgotten about it, or thought it was going to be too tricky to explain? Please. C'm on! How many more question marks have I left? Uh - only five? Or four now? Oh shit . . . )
So I pretend there aren't ten strings tied to all ten of my fingers.
As a pretty ace guitarist she possibly finds it easier not to think of the strings that join up her body. Start anatomizing things, and you might not be able to put them back together. She's aware of the precarious framework that holds the whole show together.
And what's our protagonist doing all the while? No, she's not wiggling her butt-magnet (that'll be her next hip-hop deconstruct album) - she's utterly impassive and neutral. She's got it all under control. Like her album-cover photos.
Well, just. The dual-camera shift-effect tells me that all these people, all these scenarios still have possible other meanings, other outcomes. Nothing bad has happened - yet. Or it might depend on how you look at it.
Oh and the music? Well now . . . it's the usual disjunture of angelic choirs jousting with impossible instruments. No, I really mean impossible: these are bassoonophons and harpsifiddles that she crams into her 'stomp-box' for the stage. Generally it's almost atonal sludge that she pumps up out of the bilges with this pedal. Aurally glorious too. Those in the know will soon enough tell me that there are extraordinary chord or key shifts going on. I know it sounds like chaos - and I know it's not in the least. Meanwhile she keeps her voice-track pretty clear : she wants the words, beautifully enunciated, to get through, above all.
Can you reach the spots that need oiling and fixing?
Help me, help me
Is this video bizarre? Is she mad?
Only the crazy think they're not. She's not and you'd know it too if you can be bothered to find the clip of her rehearsing that particularly blistering guitar section, and getting it right, and grinning with delight. (Rehearsal before South by SouthWest). But she knows too that people are haunted machines: the strings that twitch the bones, and the mind that pulls the strings. She knows she's got it bad - whatever it is that makes her her - but also that she's got the means to deal with it so we can see it, and thereby see her, more clearly. And all that might just make the whole trip more bearable, even joyful.