Last time Annie Clark was in town almost two years ago, she was alone. She played a short solo set to a half-full Vicar St. as the warm up act for Grizzly Bear. On that night she was stunning, coming with a bag full of songs fresh from her second album Actor. Her incredible musical chops were to the fore, with guitar loops underpinning an angelic voice delivering constant, undeniable hooks. In many ways it was the sparseness of the set that really made it work; robbed of her usual touring band and forced to re-jig the songs by herself, the intricate structures were peeled back somewhat and the melodic heart of the songs were all the more prominent. The set seemed remove the layers of complication that Clark builds up around herself and her songs and gave her room to breathe.
This time around, things are very different. Now touring on the back of her wildly successful third album Strange Mercy, the Button Factory played host to the complete St. Vincent show in full force. Four-piece backing band, intense light show, an album’s worth of new songs and of course, Clark herself, in her all-singing, all-shredding glory. Opening with the swirling synth chords of ‘Surgeon’, lead single off Strange Mercy, it’s clear it’s going to be a big, brash show. The bass is very much in your face, drums are staccato and Clark floats over the top of it all. The main riff comes and goes, before the wailing crescendo comes in to finish it. More songs follow from the new album, ‘Cheerleader’, ‘Cruel’ and ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ being some highlights. By the end, most, if not all, tracks from Strange Mercy get a rendition. They are, in general, faithful to their recorded counterparts, with the increase in volume providing the main difference. The musicians are all incredibly tight, as you’d expect of anyone playing with Clark, but there’s an intense feeling of restraint at all times.
This tight rein is let slip on just a couple of occasions, each to wondrous effect. A cover of The Pop Group’s ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’ is the most obvious and cathartic of the bunch as the drums fall into a true, danceable groove for the first time while Clark’s hugely distorted chords ring out and the bass gets your feet itching to move. It is slightly more straight-forward than the original and hits all that much harder for it. It is the first real example of the band utilising space and they revel in their new found freedom. Clark’s own compositions are tightly-controlled structures in constant flux, confidently put together to express a nervous disposition, so this post-punk looseness arrives feeling like a breath of fresh air.
There are other moments of release, the screaming on ‘Year Of The Tiger’ and her theremin solo for instance, each of which bring a sense of bodily engagement with the music, each reaching out to the audience and grabbing them by the scruffs of their far-from-reluctant necks. This is not what St. Vincent is about 95% of the time though, and the question of whether these moments of unbounded noise and joy would work without the long passages of taut anxiety is difficult to answer. It’s a difficult juxtaposition, and that may well be the point. St. Vincent has always reveled in unease, and with Strange Mercy, that sense of awkwardness reaches new levels. Even Clark’s blink and you’ll miss it stage-dive (more of a stage-stagger-and-fall really) at the end seems contrived, over before it starts.
The music is always tense and intricate, bouncing from free jazz to some sort of baroque bubblegum pop with no particular technical trouble, but the sweetness of the vocals and the odd hook just serves to make it feel even weirder. All these elements come even more to the fore in the live situation, as it becomes aggressively loud and the lights make it seem darker than the surface music would suggest. Was this enjoyable? It’s a tough one to call. The talent is there in spades and contrivance is not always a bad thing but Clark is a difficult figure to get close to, to understand or empathise with. If she can learn to step out from behind her own walls, we might be privy something truly spectacular, a formidable talent unleashed. For now, we’ll have to be content with what she wants us to see, hear and feel. That will be enough for most.
Photos: Damien McGlynn.