With a catalogue of impressive records, presented in accomplished live realisations and a mantlepieceful of awards for her work along the way, Annie Clark has now reached the point in her career as St Vincent where she can do whatever she likes and interest will follow.
What she’s done with that freedom, however, is unexpected: tonight, for 90 minutes, static and alone, she sings along to booming studio-prepared mp3s, each one stripped of its lead vocal and lead guitar part so that Clark can re-insert herself, live and note-perfect, at the appropriate moment. Backdrops and video screens flicker; lights flash; the costumes are unimaginably glamorous. The show, however, is barely alive: this is pop music as homeopathy, attempting to convince an audience that ever-smaller doses of live performance deliver an ever-increasing punch.
The first half is the more peculiar. Clark initially appears in the crack of a curtain and, over the next 30 minutes, an entirely empty stage is revealed little by little as more of the curtain is drawn back after each song. At first, the concealment suggests the existence of a band behind; by the time it’s fully drawn back, though, the backing track’s eerie precision simply reinforces the emptiness and isolated position of St Vincent, and serves as a reminder, frustratingly, of what you aren’t seeing. The message is clear: Clark wants no company but her own – even the faces of the stagehands swapping her guitars are covered by balaclavas.
The second half, a straight playback of ‘Masseduction’, heaps the predictability of song order upon the mechanisation of each song’s delivery, as if goading an audience already witnessing a show entirely on rails to react, one way or the other, to its deliberately phony, satirical status. They do, in both directions: as the audience thins out, the rapt remainder declare their love.
There are moments of humour. “I can’t even express my joy at being here,” Clark deadpans at one point, like some darkly comic, semi-lobotomised Chuck Palahniuk character; at another, the arse from the front cover of Masseduction scrolls slowly past on the jumbotron behind her, giving a sort of pantomime “it’s behind you!” impression of the singer being mooned by her own visuals. The vast majority, however, is austere, severe and aloof: St Vincent as the self-appointed fulcrum to this damning deconstruction of a “gig”’s very essence.
Plenty before Clark have bemoaned the rockist “authenticity” cliché – no costumes, four-piece band – as merely a euphemism for the absence of a performance concept. What Clark presents tonight, however, is thinly conceived minimalism masquerading as exactly the same. Is this depthless karaoke session really the best way Clark can think to express the rich, gnawing and communicative songs on Masseduction to 5,000 people in front of her? We must assume so – after all, the last ten years or so have proved her as a thoughtful and conscientious artist, regardless of the subjective value of the work.
That doesn’t make her decisions any less baffling though: tonight, St Vincent is holographic to the point of redundancy, and while that ghostly presence is sporadically intriguing, there’s little artistic heft, conceptually or musically. This is the sort of show that will provoke as many proclamations of genius as it does pseud, and one can only imagine that sort of division is exactly as Clark intended. Either way, though, “mass seduction” has never appeared so repellant.