St. Vincent - Terminal 5 - 2/26/14
Better Than: Normal human beings.
Photos Loren Wohl. See more St. Vincent at Terminal 5 photos.
This is how St. Vincent's new live show begins: in lieu of walkout music, there's just darkness and reverberating sound boiling in the air above the crowds' heads, and then there's one of those ancient computerized voices that already sound like the aged sci-fi markers of a bygone era. "Greetings fellow analogue creatures," it begins. "Please refrain from capturing your experience tonight digitally. Thank you, St. Vincent." Last night's Terminal 5 show checked a lot of boxes: the beginning of the American leg of St. Vincent's Digital Witness tour, and a hometown show the day after the release of her new self-titled album. Fittingly, from that voice introducing the night onwards, much of St. Vincent's stage presence, flourishes, and banter seemed to originate from the same push and pull that defines the tension of St. Vincent.
Flanked by just a drummer, a synth player, and a multi-instrumentalist splitting her time between more synths and more guitar, St. Vincent's performance willfully held contradictions, much like her persona always has. St. Vincent has accrued a certain live reputation in recent years. It's common to assert that if you don't like the restraint and sometimes chilly surfaces and carefully restricted rhythms of her studio music, then the live show's heavier helping of id might appeal to you more. More so than as a recording artist, perhaps, it's in concert that St. Vincent has earned her reputation as one of the most interesting and ferocious guitarists working in indie music right now, alternating between beautifully emotive interludes and the scorched squalor of extended solos. St. Vincent's live take on her music has been known to be heavier, more expansive.
See more St. Vincent at Terminal 5 photos.
This is only partially true with the new material. Annie Clark, the woman behind St. Vincent, has described her intent behind the new album as trying to make "a party record that you could play at a funeral." This sentiment feels true on multiple counts. Incorporating her experience of working on Love This Giant with David Byrne, St. Vincent displays a newfound emphasis on groove, but always rhythms that are rigid; like rigor mortis is keeping them firmly in the boundaries of their pre-existing patterns. Much of the set focuses on this new material--every song from St. Vincent is played save "Psychopath" and "Severed Crossed Fingers"--and the band faithfully recreates the synthetic and angular qualities that dominate the album. The other sense in which the quote rings true is that this loyalty to the recordings results in a live set that's eerily danceable: the beats retain their form but are fleshed out to fill a larger room, with sickly sweet synths weaving their way in and out. New tracks like "Every Tear Disappears" and "Prince Johnny" are equal parts lush and controlled.
Older songs, too, get revamped with more of a St. Vincent-related sound, particularly stuff from Actor. The lilting acoustic that usually opens with "Laughing With a Mouthful of Blood" is now a distorted blur that leads into a more drum-centric arrangement, while "The Bed" is recast as a haunting lullaby driven by synthesized bell sounds. The only track from Marry Me is a titanic rendition of "Your Lips Are Red." Regularly used as a closer over the years, the song has mutated from an early, but unrefined, example of St. Vincent's dark side into something massive. It's an industrial freakout that viciously whips between foreboding verses and bursts of guitar noise, eventually weaving its way toward a moment of relief, a gorgeous coda built on the recontextualization of the song's oft-repeated title from a sort of threat into a kind of revery.
At several points in the show, Clark paused to talk to the audience, delivering little monologues that were at once moving, nonsensical, and symbolically resonant within the framework of her new show. The first of these began "I can feel you up here. It's sort of like I already know you," before Clark proceeded to list a bunch of things about us that, one might assume, were actually about her. "Your favorite word is 'orgiastic.'" "I have a few more ideas about us. Your friends don't know everything about you. Sometimes when you look at your limbs you think 'Are these my limbs?' Sometimes when you ride the subway from Harlem to downtown you picture what everyone looked like when they were children." In practice and in content, Clark's speeches represented the contrast of St. Vincent. They flowed like stream of consciousness recollections of memory, but you knew they were narratives that had been planned and must fit into their assigned paths. It was equal parts organic and programmed.
That contrast held true in every facet of the show. Also picking up where she left off after the Love This Giant tour, Clark has incorporated some choreography into the show, with her and the other guitarist sometimes twirling slowly or jerking themselves around robotically. They looked, from afar, like they were controlled by strings. Existing alongside and, maybe, in rebellion against all the more controlled and planned elements of the set were those raw and human moments as well. Many of these, predictably, came from Clark's guitar--the leaden swagger of the second half of "Huey Newton," the super-sized renditions of the riffs in "Year of the Tiger" crashing against a more elegiac guitar interlude, the aforementioned force of "Your Lips Are Red." At the beginning of the encore, Clark took the stage alone with her guitar and performed a solo rendition of "Strange Mercy." It was the show's most affecting moment, a stunning and bare rendition that thrived even without all the layers and nuances that make it her best song.