The old St. Vincent is back (sort of) on 'All Born Screaming' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

It’s about a minute into “Broken Man,” the lead single to St. Vincent’s All Born Screaming, when it becomes really clear why St. Vincent opted to self-produce her newest record – her first in three years, following the wild success of the Jack-Antonoff-produced 2021’s Daddy’s Home and 2017’s MASSEDUCTION. Over a quirky but subdued electronic beat, Vincent asks the listener, “What are you lookin’ at?” and suddenly, a massive hit of guitar, bass, and synthesizer floods the mix, ten-times as loud as anything we’ve heard in the past minute. It’s not the first song in the world to pull a trick like that, but it’s the kind of decision that would make a hitmaker like Antonoff cover his ears. That’s when St. Vincent’s All Born Screaming is at its best; surprising the listener with flashes of the idiosyncrasies that defined St. Vincent’s early work.

At times, All Born Screaming has the amateurish charm that you’d want from someone’s first self-produced record; the dinky drum machines that ground “Sweetest Fruit,” a tearjerking tribute to late producer SOPHIE, sound like the kind of thing St. Vincent would’ve assembled in her bedroom. At other times, it has the lavish production that’s typical of St. Vincent’s music; again, take “Sweetest Fruit,” which breaks into a spacey (but undeniably poppy) sea of guitars and synths towards the end. That’s the thing about All Born Screaming; never is the record as incendiary as its cover art implies. Never is it as chaotic as the lyrics, which are rife with apocalyptic themes, suggest it should be. Nearly 20 years into her solo career, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get something as bizarre and exciting as Marry Me or Love This Giant again. Still, All Born Screaming is an improvement in that the sappier Antonoff-isms are gone. Even though the record feels partially like a return to MASSEDUCTION’s electronic focus, there’s not a single track on here that feels as surgically crafted for radioplay as “New York,” a very welcome change.

MASSEDUCTION, and, to a lesser extent, Daddy’s Home, stick out as a reference points for this album, but that’s only because the album’s most memorable moments are the ones in which St. Vincent is wearing her love of campy funk pastiches on her sleeve. “Big Time Nothing” features a nasty clarinet over a fat synth line that feels – dare I say it – a little indie sleaze? Then again, there’s hints at a desire to return to the grandiosity of her earlier, more progressive work. But on tracks like “Hell is Near” and “Reckless,” St. Vincent’s imaginative lyrics and brilliant vocals are unfortunately paired with predictable instrumentals. It seems like St. Vincent has no intention of losing her image as an ascending semi-popstar, and while she can pull off funk-inflected pop better than most of her contemporaries, her attempts at balladry pale in comparison to the likes of peers Ethel Cain or Lana Del Rey. What if I ended this song with a slow, repetitive, mantra-like crescendo? St. Vincent asks us about four or five times on this record. It grows stale quickly, though the best use of this gimmick is probably the closer, which really harps on the contrast between St. Vincent’s dance-pop and art-pop sides.

All Born Screaming is a step in a more interesting direction, but it still feels like St. Vincent is holding back. If you’re still holding out for the chaotic genius of her pre-Antonoff-era, you likely won’t be happy with this album, but if you want something that’s just as fun as the best moments on MASSEDUCTION and Daddy’s Home (with slightly rawer production and wilder lyrics), give this a listen – you won’t be disappointed.

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