Finding the Real St. Vincent
Over the years, Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent, has presented herself as an 18th-century–dressed robot who dances on her tippytoes, a twee piano crooner, a sort of modern-day Louis Prima and, most recently, a guitar-eviscerating neon space alien. “I think it’s cool that some people hate it,” she said last year of people’s reactions to her recent run of gigs.
She’s an artist who is impossible to know from her performances alone. And that’s sort of the point: She fine-tunes her artistic visions with choreographers and creative directors — much like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift — but she does so in a way that keeps her just left of center, mainstream-adjacent. She made her recent Masseduction album with hit-maker Jack Antonoff and settled into a sort of neo-new-wave soundtrack for her ruminations on loneliness, sexual experimentation and anxiety. It was one of 2017’s best records, and it was her best-selling LP, making it into the Billboard Top 10. So it would only make sense that a year later, she would move on to something else.
Her latest endeavor is a radical reworking of Masseduction, retitled MassEducation. It’s like a dub album in reverse. She teamed with her longtime friend Thomas Bartlett, who’s gone by Doveman, and turned each song into a cabaret showstopper. There are new emotional peaks and troughs in each song, as if she feels them differently than the more familiar versions. And there’s a sense of communion and trust between her and Bartlett as she works through whatever private crises inspired each track. You can practically hear their connection, since it’s the most naked album she’s made yet (she’s even nude on the cover), and it’s even more compelling to see live.
Clark and Bartlett have done only a few MassEducation concerts in big cities, including London and Los Angeles, and Tuesday night they staged one in Brooklyn, at the 800-seat BAM Harvey Theater. The show was dubbed “An Intimate Performance With St. Vincent,” and all that was on the small stage, between peeling stucco walls and indoor porticos, was a piano for Bartlett and a microphone for Clark. For an artist who has spent much of her career obfuscating and burying her true self behind otherworldly personae, it was a glimmer of authenticity and vulnerability.
Without her usual artifices (she barely spoke to the audience at last year’s brilliant Masseduction shows) she transformed into a grand chanteuse. Songs like “Masseduction” and “Los Ageless,” felt upbeat in new ways; “Young Lover” was sadder and more confused that the studio version; and “I Prefer Your Love,” after a song about how she once had to explain death to her young brother, was even more emotional. She had nothing to hide behind, so it was either perform or confide in the members of the audience, who spent $100 or more to experience this rare gig.
Witnessing the rapport between her and Bartlett was almost worth the price of admission alone. She shared how they had met many years ago (when they were six years old or infants, depending on how much she wanted to exaggerate it) and had both been too embarrassed to want to work with one another because they thought they’d disappoint each other. (Bartlett has worked with Sufjan Stevens, the National, Marianne Faithfull and others.) But they’d built a strong bond, she said, when Bartlett had introduced her to New York’s queer community and they spent many late nights drinking, and she credits those nights as inspiring her song “Prince Johnny.”
Bartlett often hunched over his piano, resembling Schroeder from Peanuts, while playing and bashfully hid his face while she told stories about him. He also prodded her along throughout the night when she went on long tangents, signaling her to “wrap it up,” reminding her of the time and reading her songs from the set list, so she could pick and choose what to sing. (She elected to skip “Pills,” which is all for the best since it’s one of the tracks that didn’t translate so well.) He also matched her energy throughout the night, banging loud notes and stomping his feet. Most of the time, he sipped from a tumbler next to his feet while she went full Liza Minelli.
The usually tacit Clark, aided by a glass of tequila, was unfiltered at the show. She told the crowd, “I know a joke,” and followed it by a single horrifying sentence about a friend’s dog who’d been eaten by a coyote. She shared funny stories, like one about when she shot her “Fast Slow Disco” music video with “a bunch of bears,” who were all greased up, at the local metal club Saint Vitus, accidentally stepping on one man’s testicles in stilettos. And she told a revealing story about a time in Japan where fans groped her and she went into a blind range and attacked the front row with her mic, hitting the barricade so hard she has a permanent indentation on her leg (that’s the story that got a “wrap it up” signal from Bartlett, to which Clark said, “Oh, did I ruin my career?”). She also batted her eyelashes at an assistant asking for ice in her tequila and held out one of her five-inch pumps, begging a woman offstage to undo it for her. It was Clark, feeling like she was at home.
But that also lent for some moving performances. She had started the whole thing with a showtune-inflected cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” adding actorly affectations to his heartrending tale, but beyond that she admitted they hadn’t rehearsed the set and loosened up. She and Bartlett communed on “Savior,” a song about bedtime role-playing with a sweet “Pleeease” tacked on, as she crooned and he reached into his grand piano to pluck the low strings. Her voice was raw on some of the upper notes, but it made the songs more striking. On “Fear the Future,” a song she had to restart because she couldn’t remember the second verse (the audience was more than happy to oblige), she entered her head voice as he played shimmering cascades of notes. And on the ballad “New York,” she had the audience singing the chorus, “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who’d forgive me,” as if it were a classic torch song.
For once, here was Annie Clark for the sake of Annie Clark (at least when she wasn’t joking about what was and wasn’t intended as performance art). It was refreshing, and it breathed new life into her songs — a perspective we didn’t know we needed. She has another gig with Bartlett coming up in New York City next year, as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, but other than that, she’ll likely return to dreaming up outlandish and likely glorious new facades for the future.
St. Vincent set list:
“Fear the Future”
“I Prefer Your Love”
“Hang on Me”