“I’ve played dumb when I knew better / Tried too hard just to be clever…” Taken from “Cheerleader,” the third track on St. Vincent’s new album, Strange Mercy, it’s the second half of this lyric that springs most easily to mind when I try to put my finger on exactly what it is that has always prevented me from really getting into St. Vincent’s music. On my way to see Annie Clark and company’s recent show at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, I wondered if the live St. Vincent experience would help bridge this gap for me. What I wound up experiencing was a very solid, very representative—if not revelatory—showcase of what St. Vincent is all about. I just wish I weren’t left wanting more.
Backed by the three stoic, suit-clad members of her current touring band—a drummer and two keyboardists, at least one of whom also triggered samples to help flesh out these often cinematic songs—Ms. Clark took the stage in a black romper and tights, looking as ethereally gorgeous as she always seems to. The band proceeded to launch into the first four songs from Strange Mercy in order: “Chloe in the Afternoon”, “Cruel”, “Cheerleader”, and “Surgeon”. While these songs certainly represent the strongest stretch in St. Vincent’s discography thus far (and have taken turns running through my head daily for the past couple of weeks), I wouldn’t have minded seeing one or two of them saved for later in the show. Nonetheless, “Surgeon” in particular—with Clark doing her best Robert Fripp impression on the guitar while imploring, “Best, finest surgeon / Come cut me open”—was a standout. Make no mistake, Annie Clark is an extremely talented guitarist, with a gift for virtually never playing anything predictable or easily figured out. With that said, her guitar solo to close out “Surgeon” didn’t carry quite as well as the slightly over-the-top, ‘80s-sounding keytar solo on the album version of the song does.
Although Annie Clark’s voice is crystalline and very pretty in its own way, it’s also somewhat cold, and not actually that expressive. Partly for this reason, the show seemed to hit a little bit of a mid-inning lull when the band played a few of the slower songs from Strange Mercy. Without the driving, twitchy energy of a song like “Marrow” from 2009’s Actor (which ended the main set, to great effect) Clark’s mannered, intellectual lyrics meant that these slower songs tended to float away and get lost like helium balloons in Liberty Hall’s celestial-themed ceiling. This lull was quickly dispelled, however, by the only cover song of the evening—a blistering take on “She is Beyond Good and Evil” by late ‘70s British post-punk band The Pop Group. This was followed by the similarly aggressive, Strokes-meets-Kate Bush tune “Northern Lights”, which, for me, contained the evening’s only real moment of musical disappointment: the “solo”—which, on the album version of the song, sounds like record-scratching run through a malfunctioning blender—was beset by technical difficulties that rendered the first few seconds completely silent and the rest indistinct.
However, it was during the title track from Strange Mercy that I inadvertently hit on why St. Vincent’s music leaves me cold in a really fundamental way, even when I essentially enjoy it. With its minimalist drums and synth arpeggios, “Strange Mercy” has a distinct ‘80s sheen that, it occurs to me, would sound right at home on the soundtrack to Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent, and similarly 80s tinged, noir/action film. Much like Ryan Gosling’s nameless “Driver” character, Annie Clark tends to come across as slightly removed, a cipher. A lyric like “They could take or leave you / So they took you and they left you” seems designed more to impress than to connect—to come from a place of “this would make a clever lyric that would achieve a certain effect” more than a place of “I know the pain of how this feels”. Of course, song lyrics don’t have to come from personal experience; what I’m talking about is an issue of connecting as a performer, not one of authenticity. My overall impression of Annie Clark is of someone who is ultimately untouched even by the subjects of her own lyrics. And whereas a film like Drive might be able to at least partially get away with a certain showy remove, the same approach can only be employed by a singer-songwriter for so long before you start wondering, or worse, stop wondering, if there’s any glimpse behind the curtain to even be had. In other words, if Annie Clark has a Blue Valentine up her sleeve, I’d love to see it.