November 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Published in the Nov. 19 issue of NME Magazine.
“My face is drawn on with this number 2 pencil,” sings St. Vincent’s Annie Clark in the final song of her set, ‘Your lips are red’, as she steps in front of the microphone and teeters on the edge of the stage at New York’s Webster Hall. A soundman rushes to roll out cable. Clark sways for a moment in the strobelight, then flips over onto the ready arms of the audience who carry her, one leg raised, out into the crowd.
It was a moment of release from Clark’s usual poise and comes hard earned. St. Vincent’s twisted pop songs expose the madness that goes on behind a mask drawn on in pencil – from failing at motherhood in ‘Cruel’ to lying to keep the peace in ‘Cheerleader’ and ‘Surgeon’. Her characters stress about inadequacy. As she tells Webster Hall, the video for ‘Cruel’ shows Clark being kidnapped by a motherless family who bury her alive after they realise she can’t cook, clean or care for them properly.
If cleaning is a problem, Clark makes up for it in control: both creative control and the kind of self-control she exudes onstage. Though tonight her chilly demeanor could also be nerves. There is a moment before ‘Save me from what I want’ where the spotlight dances across Clark’s face as she takes in the packed 1400-capacity venue and her mouth makes a small ‘o’. David Byrne, with whom she is collaborating on an as-yet-undisclosed new project, watches from the wings. Cameras follow Clark everywhere, streaming the performance live for MTV in a mark of mainstream acceptance if ever there was one.
Creative control has served Clark well on three solo albums since she stopped touring with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens last decade. But it wasn’t until this year’s ‘Strange Mercy’, an album that stretches ideas about identity and anxiety over woodwind arrangements and nifty angular riffs, that she started attracting the attention she deserves.
At Webster Hall, Clark plays puppets with her audience. She warms with a story about drinking tequila and running through a cemetery on Halloween before launching into ‘Neutered Fruit’, then squashes a heckler who says she can’t shred with the words: “What is this, a live twitter feed?” A growling cover of The Pop Group ‘She’s beyond good and evil’ speaks for itself.
Tonight it’s all in the eyes, wide and unblinking, until the sudden stage dive. But don’t be fooled: Clark’s studied femininity is a ruse for something much, much bolder.