In “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a custom Masseduction-era St. Vincent guitar sat alongside the instruments played by the musician’s own idols: the double-necked Gibson Jimmy Page would shred “Stairway to Heaven” on, Jimi Hendrix’s self-painted “Love Drops,” a Stratocaster smashed by Kurt Cobain. Being in the company of these guitar gods accentuated St. Vincent’s differences — not just as one of few women in the exhibition and fewer who started performing in the 21st century, but as someone whom the term “rock” never fully fit. She earned her title as a new guitar god for music that didn’t center guitars and a propensity to distort what they could sound like. For a 2017 New Yorker profile of St. Vincent, the stage name of Annie Clark, Sufjan Stevens noted that Clark preferred to use effects pedals during her solos when she played in his band. “She made such weird sounds,” he said. “It was like the Loch Ness monster giving birth inside a silo.” Later, as St. Vincent, Clark often seemed more interested in breaking out of rock than pushing it forward.
That’s far from the case on “Pay Your Way in Pain,” the first single off Clark’s upcoming seventh album as St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home. Ahead of the new music, she told Mojo she’d been digging into Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone, two artists whose funk and soul loom large over decades of rock music. “I felt I had gone as far as I could possibly go with angularity,” said Clark, who chased “pop-level intention” on her last album, the cheekily postmodern Masseduction. Channeling ’70s funk would surely be a 180 after touring an album with backing tracks and dancers, but would it even work?
So far, the answer is a resounding yes. “Pay Your Way in Pain” finds St. Vincent in clear rock-star mode, with Clark confidently towering over a writhing, squirming beast of a song. “Pay Your Way in Pain” could’ve been a mere imitation of Clark’s influences, or a proof-of-concept that loses what makes St. Vincent special. Instead, it’s a rollicking glam anthem, refracting those influences through Clark’s own idiosyncratic view for a good, maybe great, St. Vincent track.
Where Masseduction sounded taut and polished, there’s a sense of leisure on “Pay Your Way in Pain.” Clark carries herself with the audacity of Mick Jagger, stomping all over the track. You can nearly envision her dominating a stage as she sings it — no matter if she’s behind the beat or slurring some syllables, because she carries herself so coolly the whole time. Most of the songs on Daddy’s Home were done in the first take; here, those live moments crackle with electricity, like the back-and-forth ad-libbed between Clark and her backup singers. “You know what I want?” she teases. “I wanna be loooooved.”
There’s something beneath the performance for Clark, too: Daddy’s Home grapples, in part, with her father’s 2010 arrest for white-collar financial crimes, something she hasn’t touched on much since it was uncovered in 2016. So no, don’t expect Clark to follow the radical politics of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On — but “Pay Your Way in Pain” does share that album’s pessimism, albeit on a personal level. And like Stone, Clark has made it difficult to look away as she preaches that pessimism.