Annie Clark celebrates her new Top Rated album with a sold out hometown gig.
Photos: Wei Shi
A St. Vincent concert is a great leveler—it reduces all of us, even Annie Clark—to mere specks in the universe that the music of St. Vincent has created. Giants like David Byrne appear alongside unemployed Brooklyners and haughty Manhattan socialites, all eager to bask in her enormous glow. The packed VIP section in New York’s shoddiest large crowd venue Terminal 5 can attest to this: We are all moths flitting toward the great white light of Annie Clark.
When the spotlight hit Clark, she belt out opener “Rattlesnake” with a sly grin, her spiny shadow looming nearby in the corner. She arrived in all reds and blacks, an almost cabaret outfit that flirted with the conservative side of sexy with stark lines. The crowd roared and hissed as they recognized her latest single, their vocals filling the cavernous warehouse of the venue with uncanny volume. Miraculously, most everyone honored the robotic plea issued just prior to the music: “Please refrain from digitally capturing your experience.” This made her message on follow-up song “Digital Witness” hang even heavier in the room: “I want all of your mind.”
St. Vincent is the perfect pop star candidate for our new millennial tastes, and the live show for her fourth and latest, self-titled record reveals this with crystalline clarity. More Bowie than Britney, she cherry picks from the drama and glitz of the ’80s with none of its tawdry, channeling the frisson of nostalgia with a cool elegance that’s decidedly of the moment. “I can’t see the future but I know it’s got big plans for me,” goes a line on “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” a mid-set deep cut from her 2009 breakout Actor. Assured even in prescient incantations, she seems to speak her cultural import into being, predicting and creating her impact. Because she is a pop star maximalist, donning her guitar from a stagehand like a crown, prancing from center stage to some art deco, stark white boxes like a creature. She even adopts the pose of doe-eyed lounge singer for a sensual performance of another new one, the blasphemous defiance of “I Prefer Your Love.”
But she’s a pop star of her own design, existing within her own distinct confines. Clark bucks beauty standards with casual ease, willfully embracing the female dread of “grey hair” and assembles her locks with the ferocity of a lion’s mane. None of it is accidental, surely, but none of it feels put upon either. Clark is never contrived even when she is deliberate—she feels like Clark even when she’s channeling the star power of St. Vincent. Amid a generation desperately seeking to identify with aesthetic signifiers defined by their relationship to others, she seems strangely unconnected from her contemporaries.
It feels reassuring to see that Clark’s style is all her own. Even when her aesthetic nods to others, at the center of St. Vincent’s visual and aural identity we find the girl Clark and goddess St. Vincent casually interpolated across guitar solos, structured stage banter, and sporadic smiles. The staged, pre-composed banter she prepared to address the audience with has the warm feel of a mother reading a book she knows well to her children—there’s no rigidity in her preparation. Instead, the intermittent speeches reflecting on childhood joys and hopes that is seeking to connect Clark with her fans, comes across as a warm, hospitable foresight.
It’s the moments of animal abandon that really make the live show a spectacle though. Her guitar solos recall why we used the word “shredding” at all to talk about sounds that guitars make. They’re Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, or Poison in nature and fervor, but mashed up against intricate, balanced organs and harmonies and strewn with her compelling yet child-like lyrics. Her freedom onstage seems tied to the reality of her social restraint. Dancing like she’s giving birth or heaving in sickness on “Every Tear Disappears”, or doing a corpselike ballet during the languid, high-register breathiness of “Surgeon”, she seems unlocked, revealed. For “Cheerleader”, she clambered to the highest shellacked white box of the tower to unleash a guitar solo that sounds like a VCR eating the old magnetic tape of a beat-up VHS. As if the reified role of female as sexually suggestive sidelines spectator would itself jam in the machinery of our society and cease to ever be played out again.
These images conflict with the kind but closed-off portraits we get of her in overly-lengthy and wide-eyed profiles, or even photographs of her. The hype wearies us even as we seek to know her more, but this dichotomy also speaks to our continued fascination. Hence her popularity and the all-around-din of her celebrated genius: She knows herself, and she’s assured enough in that knowledge to keep it under the lock and key of her watchful, careful dialogue with the public.
Her prepared monologues make one thing clear, though, which is that Annie Clark is a great lover of the unceasing awe of childhood hopes and dreams. For an encore, a solitary, stripped down version of “Strange Mercy” from 2011’s record of the same name soothes like a lullaby, encouraging impossible dreams with a peculiar insistence. “I’ll be with you lost boys/ sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you” goes the Peter Pan-invoking refrain. Clark invites us to re-stoke the embers of our imagination, before we learned it wasn’t cool to dream big, whopping guitar-solo energy into the tiny, extraordinary hopes we had for ourselves. Before we learned that mercy is indeed strange, and rare in our encounters with the injustices of reality, law, and hierarchy. So she sings us the lullabies and livid, seething rock songs to soothe our embattled hearts. We can never be children again, but in the flicker of her looming shadow, we find a blind belief in recapturing innocence. Whether it’s a losing battle or not, Annie Clark stands as a witness that this battle is not futile.