St. Vincent – Terminal 5 – 2/26/14


Better Than: Normal human beings.

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.

See also: St. Vincent Has Crafted a Magnificent Mythology on Her Own Terms

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.

These moments all emanated outwards from a single precursor: the performance of “Surgeon” about halfway through the main set. Climbing atop a platform at the back of the stage, Clark stood high above her band and the crowd alike, her legs set wide in a kind of power stance, as she throttled her guitar through that song’s contorted, plastic outro. Her solo sounded like things a guitar shouldn’t, like old video game sounds melting into renegade forms. Lights cast massive shadows behind her, like distant other St. Vincents.

See more St. Vincent at Terminal 5 photos.

At its core, the experience of seeing St. Vincent live–in 2014, at least–is arresting because of this contrast between iconography and community. With her new music and with the way she speaks to the crowd, Clark seems to want to get at some idea of human connectivity in real life. But it functions as a ruse, too. Clark’s voice is calm and dreamlike, but it’s commanding. She speaks with an exacting precision that demands you believe she’s imparting some kind of wisdom. And she does so while cradling that guitar, and with those shadows cast behind her. St. Vincent does not stray away from becoming a temporarily monolithic presence in these moments. You’ve probably heard people describe her as a force of nature. She seems like something different now, though. She’s a force beyond nature. After nature.

Random Notebook Dump: Last night had to have been one of the most crowded experiences I’ve ever had at Terminal 5; the insistent press of bodies felt even through a winter coat also seemed somehow relevant to the ideas underlying St. Vincent.

Overheard: “I mean, not seeing her eyes is one thing, but it looked like she had no face!”

Critical Bias: Despite being a longtime fan, this was my first opportunity to see St. Vincent play her own show. (I did manage to see her on tour with David Byrne in 2012.) So there was something like five or six years of anticipation building up to last night.

See more St. Vincent at Terminal 5 photos.

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Digital Witness
Birth In Reverse
Laughing With A Mouthful of Blood
I Prefer Your Love
Every Tear Disappears
Prince Johnny
Year of the Tiger
Huey Newton
Bring Me Your Loves
Northern Lights

Strange Mercy
The Bed
Your Lips Are Red