Paramount Studios Backlot
Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017
“I want her to parachute onto the stage from one of those windows,” says one of a couple thousand St. Vincent fans packed into an intersection of two streets on the Paramount Studios backlot, gazing up at the Brooklyn-like brownstones that surround a temporary stage draped in heavy black curtains. As red lights gently pulse from some of the windows, it seems entirely possible that they will play some role in tonight's show, at which the singer-songwriter-guitarist born Annie Clark will debut songs from her forthcoming fifth album, Masseduction, in a special one-off performance presented as part of the monthlong Red Bull Music Academy Festival. There's even a lyric in new song “Sugarboy” about hanging from a balcony, so who knows? We're on a movie studio backlot and Red Bull is famed for its connection to extreme sports and action stunts, so some elaborate feat of rigging could very well be in store.
But for tonight's performance, Clark opts to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground — though with those feet clad in red thigh-high boots, part of an ensemble that's part rock goddess, part Trashy Lingerie model, she looks as though she could take flight like a Marvel superhero at any moment. Instead, she lets her voice and guitar do the flying, commanding the audience for a 90-minute set that features no backing musicians, no elaborate sets or choreography, no pyro or smoke machines — just St. Vincent, alone on her gigantic stage, proving once again that she is one of the most electrifying artists of her generation.
She begins the set not with her new album but with 10 songs presented chronologically from her back catalog, cleverly selected and sequenced to highlight her evolution from the quirky indie singer-songwriter of her 2007 debut, Marry Me, to the art-rock explorer of Strange Mercy and her 2014 self-titled fourth album, on which her gift for slightly off-kilter pop melodies, funky grooves and shattered-glass guitar lines reached full flower. With each song, the black curtain pulls back slightly further, as if to imply that with each passing album she's revealing more of herself. Except that, when the curtain is fully retracted, all it reveals is an empty stage, a blank canvas against which Clark, in her lipstick thigh-highs and an endless procession of brightly colored guitars, seems both exposed and oddly opaque — a simulacrum of a rock star, presented by an artist too smart to fully buy into the clichés of that archetype, one who has learned how to use stagecraft not just to dazzle but to enhance her music's emotional impact.
There is no band, at least none that is visible. At times this is frustrating — are those gorgeous strings on “Strange Mercy,” so much more lush and emotive than the studio version, being played live backstage, or is Clark crooning to tape? But for the most part, the gambit pays off, especially when she unleashes her trademark flashes of guitar wizardry, which hit all the harder because there are no other musicians onstage to distract from them.
The only staging, such as it is, consists of a series of strategically placed mic stands, nimbly set and struck by a crew dressed like ninjas, in black jumpsuits and ski masks. Between songs, Clark prowls the stage from one mic to another, now facing the audience, now playing in profile, now disappearing from view (at least for those in the back) as she collapses and sings from the stage floor. Such minimalist staging more resembles the work of avant-garde theater directors like Robert Lepage than a typical rock concert. Each gesture is thrown into sharp relief; when Clark's hair occasionally falls in front of her face as she's soloing, even that feels choreographed. When she does allow herself a rare moment of banter or unguardedness — asking “What do you think, Los Angeles?” between verses of “Rattlesnake,” emitting a seemingly spontaneous laugh during “Digital Witness” — the crowd lights up like a pinball machine. There's a dramatic tension to the whole evening one rarely feels at a rock concert, especially one where only a single person occupies the stage.
For the set's second half, Clark — now sporting a metallic minidress with teal sleeves — plays Masseduction in its entirety. Now the bare, black stage is illuminated by a wall of video screens, over which flash images she created in collaboration with video director and concert designer Willo Perron. Many of the most striking ones are familiar from the videos to Masseduction tracks “New York” and “Los Ageless,” though sometimes associated with other songs. A pair of female legs kick out from a TV set as the stage lights turn blood-red for the BDSM lyrics and quasi-industrial groove of “Savior”; an expressionless Clark, clad in a vinyl dress that makes her look like a mannequin, feeds orange paper bearing the word “NO” through a shredder as the actual Clark croaks the oddly affecting album closer “Smoking Section” at the lower end of her register, singing about feeling like an inland ocean, “too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction.”
What does it all mean? At times, it seems that Clark's new album, mostly written in Los Angeles following a breakup and a move from New York, is mainly concerned with lampooning our city's supposed shallowness, or at least working through her mixed feelings toward her temporary hometown. Perron's images have the candy-colored, shiny superficiality of a Jeff Koons sculpture; images of models covered in post–plastic surgery bandages accompany lyrics like, “The Los Ageless hang out by the bar/Burn the pages of unwritten memoirs.” Even Clark's choice of venue for this concert, a fake New York streetscape in the heart of Hollywood, seems to point to some larger theme having to do with illusion or artifice. Or maybe she just thought it would look cool. Who knows?
In the end, Clark's intent behind the music on Masseduction matters less than the impact of the music itself. Like all great songwriters, she taps into something universal through lyrics that are so personal and specific they defy easy decoding. Though it's tempting to ask who “the only motherfucker who could handle me” is on surging ballad “New York” (and even more tempting to conclude that it must be Clark's ex, model Cara Delevingne — or maybe it's David Bowie?), it's ultimately more satisfying to simply read the song as a meditation on the way places become the sum of the relationships we've built in them, and how the loss of one of those relationships can turn what once felt like home into an unfamiliar landscape.
Masseduction is St. Vincent's best album yet, which is saying a lot — both weirder and more overtly pop than anything she's ever done, full of jagged funk-rock noise, sinister synth-pop and surprisingly tender ballads. And hearing the new songs live, when Clark lets rip with one of her many guitars — especially the gold one on which she lays down some wicked slide licks on the album's swaggering title track — all the meaning you could hope for is in her fingertips.
Set list below.
01 Marry Me
02 Now, Now
03 The Strangers
04 Actor Out of Work
07 Strange Mercy
08 Digital Witness
10 Birth in Reverse
01 Hang on Me
05 Los Ageless
06 Happy Birthday Johnny
08 New York
09 Fear the Future
10 Young Lover
11 Slow Disco
12 Smoking Section?