When Annie Clark appeared in press shots in 2014 like some elegant alien with a shock of wild white hair, it was clear she was redefining the boundaries of the ways she might be perceived. This confident, vampish St. Vincent was a world away from the skittish Texan indie guitarist who’d toured with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens during the 2000s and made records on the side, or even the more musically equanimous and ambitious St. Vincent on the wonderful 2011 album Strange Mercy, which explored the unlikely bedfellows of submissive sexuality and depression. The album that followed was simply called St. Vincent, as if to say everything up to that point had been a dress rehearsal. She’s been renegotiating the terms around her pop persona ever since, and tonight she sets about reconstructing the parameters of what a gig can be. A bit later on we’ll get the new album in all its glory, but before Masseduction, there has to be some foreplay.
A lot of foreplay it turns out. When great artists are full of confidence, their vision becomes impossible to contain. St. Vincent doesn’t have a support act tonight but there is this extracurricular little film she’s overseen called The Birthday Party. Her directorial debut is a dark tale set in the run up to a kid’s birthday celebration, an absurdist, Black Mirror-style short featuring an attempt to hide an unwanted corpse with a dastardly, farcical, side-splitting denouement. The pace with which events unfold is exemplary, as you might expect from somebody who clearly seems to know what they’re doing right now. Dilettantes dabble with mass media, geniuses deliver gesamtkunstwerk—a fancy German word for a synthesis of the arts, or total art, which engages all the senses at once. The show tonight will attempt to embody that very ideal… with great success.
Though the film might not initially appear to have much to do with the rest of the show, the foreboding sounds within it make a reappearance between sets like particularly sinister leitmotifs. Given that this run of shows is called the Fear The Future tour, it makes sense. Before the gig has even begun there’s a feeling of disorientation, more like standing in an art installation than waiting among a crowd at south London’s Brixton Academy. The show itself will just add to the hyperreality.
Arriving stage right with just a spotlight and a giant black drape for company, Clark is dressed like a glam rock Fevvers from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. In latex thigh-high boots, pink patent bodysuit and more arbitrary fluffy armbands, she exemplifies the themes that have possessed her in the making of Masseduction: power, objectification and strong female sexuality. The first set takes us through some of the highlights of her career to date; a reworking of previous material from a 2017 Jack Antonoff-produced power pop perspective. The retreatments of old favorites bring with them an abundance of freshness, while reinforcing the suspicion St. Vincent improves significantly with each release. And with each number tonight comes an incremental sense of expectation. The stealthy seed of excitement grows, while the stage reveals a little more of itself in an oddly tantalizing manner. Everything is planned meticulously, so it seems to open up like a flower. On “Now, Now” she reaches for a guitar and harmonically pings her way through its terrain. For “Strange Mercy” she lies prostrate, evoking the heavy content of the album of the same name, as a new backdrop is revealed featuring a phantom with a yonic yawn, decked out in red lipstick. “Digital Witness” gets the Italian house treatment and sounds not unlike Black Box’s “Ride On Time.” “Rattlesnake” and “Birth In Reverse” segue into each other to conclude, though we’re a long way from cheesy medley territory.
The first set reinforces the idea that St. Vincent already has a great body of work behind her; the next proves Clark needn’t fear the future where new material is concerned. Indeed, she’s made the journey from indie starlet to genuine cosmopolitan pop star in the space of a decade, with Masseduction heading for the top 5 in the UK this week (behind new entries from superstars Pink, Robert Plant and Beck). The plaudits and the fans she’s won over during this metamorphosis are all richly deserved, even if some of her more recent notoriety comes from the frothy coverage of who she’s slept with. If it’s strange for her fans seeing her become tabloid fodder then how strange must it be for her? This album more than any other tries to make sense of her life, projected into the mainstream spotlight partly thanks to a high profile relationship with somebody more famous than her (“I told you everything,” she told Laura Snapes writing for Buzzfeed recently. “I told you more than I would tell my own mother”). The stage show eschews realism for hyperrealism; fluorescent colors and bold imagery, clinical and forensic, all simulacra and simulation.
For the second part of the show I expect a full band to arrive with the singer, but Clark reappears alone again. The audacious backdrop which harmonizes with her on stage attire provides a far more visually arresting accompaniment than any onstage musical combo. The connection a crowd feels with one person on stage has a certain intensity to it too, as proved by Kanye West when he headlined Glastonbury. It’s a bold move, but it also seems appropriate that the Masseduction should be with Clark alone, creating a sense of intimacy despite there being 5,000 people in the room.
Opener “Hang On Me” is too close to Alanis Morrissette for comfort, but “Pills” is tonight’s pinnacle visually and musically, a sumptuous orgy of synaesthesia as well as robotic consumerism. It’s a song that neatly brings together the disaster of pain pill culture with the pitiless allure of celebrity (“I heard the tales, fortune and blame / Tigers and wolves defanged by fame”), while visually St. Vincent watches on dispassionately from the luminescent mise-en-scene like some austere dominatrix with an Ayn Rand hairdo.
It should be noted that there’s a comedic, tongue-in-cheek element to this, which also fits with the experimental, dressing up calamity scenario of “Savior.” The title track amusingly conflates sexiness with cake, and a telephone made out of cake at that. It’s a lavish trick of the eye that indulges in indulgence itself. “Young Lover” sees us jump into hyperspace (a subtle reference to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets maybe?) while “New York” doesn’t so much transport us to the Big Apple as remind those who’ve been heartbroken just what it feels like. There’s plenty of genuine pathos on the new record, and ergo live, for those detractors who claim Clark is too arch for her own good. Meanwhile, “Los Ageless,” with its wordy refrain (“How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?”) is the surprise singalong sensation of the night, and proof that cerebrality and pop can work together if the song is a bona fide banger (which “Los Ageless” undoubtedly is).
A lot has been written about the gender politics of Masseduction and of St. Vincent being an LGBT icon—which undoubtedly she is—yet the more uncompromising she is with her image and the more she confronts her audience with her sexuality, the more she seems to crossover into the mainstream. It’s a bittersweet feeling of vindication and tristesse for longtime St. Vincent fans that world domination is all but inevitable. Annie Clark is the best pop star we have—a smart, funny, androgynous visionary who is perceptive enough to help lead us through the benighted times we find ourselves in. Even by redefining what a gig can be, she makes us look at the world through different eyes. The songs are pretty amazing too. And if there’s a lesson we can take from all of this? That we have nothing to fear but the future itself.
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