St. Vincent Brings Pop Art Plasticity To Brooklyn
Ever since we were first introduced to Annie Clark’s brilliant new St. Vincent album MASSEDUCTION, there have been a few defining characteristics that drew a line between it and her past work. The fact that she teamed up with Jack Antonoff suggested that she might be pursuing a true mainstream breakthrough after her profile had been steadily rising for years. Of course, this is St. Vincent we’re talking about, and any poppier inclinations on MASSEDUCTION were always bound to be filtered through something artier and more idiosyncratic. Clark’s had distinct visual identities in the past, but nothing so thorough as the overhaul for MASSEDUCTION: the mixture of sterile Pop Art plasticity and sex and drug-crazed hedonism, the antiseptic blues and the lurid reds and hot pinks. Naturally, the imagery and identity Clark’s adopted this time around would extend to her live show with MASSEDUCTION’s accompanying Fear The Future tour as well.
Last night, Clark brought the show to Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. And seeing the current live iteration of St. Vincent underlines just how severely the MASSEDUCTION era departs from the preceding 10 years of Clark’s career. Between the structure of the setlist and the fact that Clark is alone onstage throughout the show, it’s a completely different experience than seeing St. Vincent live in the past.
In ways, it’s also completely counter-intuitive when you consider what made St. Vincent shows so great on prior tours. Part of Clark’s reputation as one of the new generation’s guitar heroes was built on those shows. Though her albums occasionally let the sinister and cathartic bubble up, they rarely broke the surface. That was part of the artfulness of them — that tension, that false pristine facade. Live, she and her band would open those songs up more; Clark’s solos would fire off in unforeseen directions, or old songs would attain previously-unimagined levels of ferocity. It was a crucial counterpoint to the albums, the other half of the story.
The Fear The Future shows aren’t like that. Though Clark still plays guitar on most songs, she plays to backing tracks instead of with a band. The set is split into two acts: a quick run-through of highlights from her first four records, and then the entirety MASSEDUCTION front-to-back. And those two halves are very much divided, to the point where the changeover is punctuated by the curtain closing, a brief synth interlude intermission, and an outfit change for Clark. When the curtain reopens, it reveals an image: Clark’s head against a stark and vivid red backdrop, staring in that eerily serene and zonked-out-on-pills way that she and other figures have leaned towards in MASSEDUCTION’s videos. It’s a line in the sand, an introduction to the new St. Vincent that takes the stage for the remaining 50 or so minutes.
This is one of the first odd conceits in the Fear The Future show. Some have made MASSEDUCTION out to be a sharp stylistic departure for Clark, but much of it is a logical enough extension of where she’d been exploring on Strange Mercy and St. Vincent. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a set that had surprising turns, placing “Sugarboy” or “Masseduction” or “Los Ageless” alongside older material in interesting pairings. In some ways, it’s odd that the first section is there at all aside from an obligation to play some old favorites — Clark blasts through those songs pretty quickly, usually only addressing the audience in moments that seem part of the script. (She had started toying with this when touring St. Vincent as well, when she’d recite these sort of prose-poems at certain points in the set.) Some moments stood out, like a string-drenched rearrangement of “Strange Mercy” or the guitar squalor Clark kicked up at the end of “Birth In Reverse” before the curtains closed around her. Mostly, though, it felt like a prelude to the new album, a recap before the seedy neon of MASSEDUCTION lit up to burn away the medicinal grey haze of the old St. Vincent.
Here’s the thing about the MASSEDUCTION part of the show: The odd and unexpected turn of this current live setup works perfectly for the new album. In recent years, she’s had a penchant for myth-making, and the setting of the Fear The Future show is striking in that capacity. There’s Clark, one tiny human on a sprawling theater stage, at times playing underneath anywhere from one to five artificial representations of herself blown-up on the screen. The use of the videos and imagery from MASSEDUCTION not only highlights how thorough the whole project is, but also gives the show its nuance. There’s that constant play between Annie Clark and St. Vincent, Clark herself seemingly in full-on performative St. Vincent mode and yet being the actual living, breathing human being onstage compared to all the echoes that flash across the screen.
There were a few moments when Clark spoke to the crowd in a more disarming manner. Introducing “New York” in Brooklyn, there was a natural opportunity for her to address her adopted hometown. “There’s only one city in the world that this song could be about, as much as one could supplant the word ‘New York’ with ‘Indianapolis,'” she said. “All good cities, but they’re not the best city in the world. It’s just a fact. This is my love letter to you all and to New York.” It was a grounding moment, one of the only points in the show where there wasn’t the artifice of St. Vincent ruling the stage.
It was, in some ways, also distracting — a more conversational moment that served to remind you that this is Clark’s seemingly most personal album, and it’s being presented, strangely enough, in a sort of distant and choreographed way. Don’t get me wrong: These new songs sound amazing filling a space like Kings Theatre, especially the synthier and more deranged tracks from the record. And Clark already sounds great delivering them, with an especially deft handle on the record’s ballads, the best of her career. But while the emotion is there, seeing Clark alone at the mic throughout it all gives it a somewhat static presentation, like you’re witnessing something that’s halfway between the record itself and a show.
So here’s the best way to think about these Fear The Future shows: It is not really a typical rock set. It’s not really a typical pop set, either, despite the fact that Clark’s singular persona and solo stage performance sort of set it up as her own take on a pop show. It’s easy to walk away feeling like it’s more of a performance you would witness at a museum or a concert hall, an event more than a set. In that context, it’s as stunning and successful as anything else Clark has done live. The imagery and nature of the show continue to play with her real and constructed identities. But the main takeaway, the thing that’ll linger in your mind after, is how larger-than-life she makes it all feel while standing there isolated onstage.
What the show lacks in spontaneity, it makes up for in gravity. Clark’s now one of those artists who can walk out and command that kind of attention, that can have a room the cavernous size of Kings all fixated upon her. When she released St. Vincent, it felt like the beginning of a coronation. Now, we’re beyond that. As Clark ran through song after song underneath image after image of herself behind her, it was undeniable: She is a star now, and she’s on her own trip, the Fear The Future show being her taking that stardom and, as always, twisting and melting and bending it until it’s completely St. Vincent.
MASSEDUCTION is out now via Loma Vista.