While preparing for her sophomore album, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark immersed herself in Disney soundtracks, which probably sounds fulsome to anyone turned off by her debut’s more whimsical touches. But what fascinates Clark—like Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey, and yes, Walt Disney before her—isn’t fantasy, but the commingling of daydream and nightmare that defines the best fairy tales. On Actor, that broken-doll creepiness is expressed not only in titles like “Black Rainbow” and “Laughing With A Mouth Full Of Blood,” but in Clark’s increasingly knotty arrangements, a smeared palette of heavenly choirs and trilling woodwinds tussling with eerie, Robert Fripp-inspired guitar tones given a redlined push by producer John Congleton (The Paper Chase). Gone are the coy, conventional pop winks of Marry Me; even Actor’s lovelier moments come tinged with down-the-rabbit-hole danger, heard in the subtle way the lilting melodies of “The Strangers” and “The Neighbors” shift from dreamy to deranged, and how the otherwise mundane details of “The Party” (“I sit transfixed by a hole in your T-shirt”) unfold into hauntingly wordless choral swells. The propulsive thrum of “Actor Out Of Work” and voguing, digitized horns of “Marrow” suggest the tumultuous marriage of prog and new wave typified by Scary Monsters-era Bowie and early Peter Gabriel. But mostly, as Actor demonstrates, St. Vincent has found her own voice—and it’s one you wouldn’t want reading your kids any bedtime stories.
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