Annie Clark is having all the fun these days. She does her best to hide it, be it as a would-be cult leader or a guitar-shredding robot. But, as happened on several occasions at Austin City Limits last weekend, it still comes through with the occasional smirk or beaming smile: when she lifts her guitar up and aims it at her fans, as though opening fire on them; when she marches around stage in unison with her bandmate Toko Yasuda; or when she climbs down into the crowd to take a selfie. Being St. Vincent is serious business, but it's also a blast.
And why shouldn't it be? Her latest album, February's St. Vincent, is arguably the best of 2014, and her reputation as an artist is nearly impeccable. Remarkably, she's managed to completely liberate herself and her art in so doing, and she's done it all on her own terms.
Clark's latest incarnation certainly has the appearance of a reinvention. The cover of St. Vincent, which she describes wryly as "party music made for a funeral," presents her with a wild shock of white, blown-out hair, seated on a throne and dressed in a glittering gown. An even bigger transformation has come in her stage show: Where Clark, who grew up in Dallas before relocating to Brooklyn, once engaged in playful banter with her audience and crowd surfed during her shows, she now recites a scripted speech and has choreographed dance moves.
Some of the new routine feels unnecessary. While her set was one of the highlights of ACL last weekend (she'll be back again this Friday), St. Vincent's music doesn't really need any gimmicks to be effective. It may even be a distraction. Part of it can likely be explained by a push to appeal to an arena audience: As a band like Arcade Fire has recently proven (with spotty success), that push from indie darling to mainstream success often means bringing a "spectacle" along.
But this is also something Clark has been building toward. Both as a public figure and as an artist, she has always been an enigma, at once staying carefully guarded about her private life while wrapping her music in cryptic messages and impressionistic imagery. Even David Byrne, who worked with Clark on their 2012 collaboration Love This Giant, admitted he knew little about her after a year of touring together. This latest iteration of St. Vincent is merely the latest facade that Clark has built around herself.
Creating that barrier has had a subtle but significant effect. It's basically allowed Clark to control the conversation around her and her art. It's rare that commentary on her music revolves around her gender, as is so often the case for female performers. Even her exceptional skills as a guitarist don't get as much attention as they deserve. Instead, her work is treated as a bit of a mystery, a subject that others approach with curiosity and relatively few preconceived ideas.
With her new "cult leader" persona, Clark has made a move not unlike Janelle Monáe. From the time she released The ArchAndroid, Monáe has presented herself as an alien, an outsider to the human race. She's used that alter-ego, a self-constructed "other," to explore complicated gender and social issues, becoming a champion for marriage equality while avoiding having her opinions pigeonholed. Never is Monáe's character more convincing than during her live show, where her superhuman stamina and dazzling dance moves make her a force of nature.
Clark, meanwhile, uses her prowess as a guitarist to form the basis for her show. Few others are pushing the sorts of innovation that she is, wielding her instrument like a bleating, mechanized weapon. But it's also a metaphor for expression: After a solo or at the end of a song, she slumps over toward the stage, as though powering up and powering down -- a robot programmed to speak through its instrument. Indeed, her scrambled style of play mirrors her stiff, jerky body movements, which imitate the poses of a doll or mannequin.
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Like Monáe, Clark has long explored issues of sexuality, however obliquely. On her previous album, 2011's Strange Mercy, she toys with the idea of women as sex objects. "Have you ever really stared at me?" she teases on the title track, before admonishing, on "Dilettante," "You can't undress me anyway."
With St. Vincent, those themes come into even sharper focus. On "Prince Johnny," she recalls the title character bragging of "who and when and where [he's] gonna bed next," the "prince" moniker itself a play on male entitlement. More often than not, romance is portrayed as not only a power struggle but as a weakness or a security blanket; on "Regret," she even admits: "I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind."
Clark doesn't convey these details with a heart-on-sleeve, wounded-heroine demeanor, but rather with a bemused detachment. It's no coincidence that the record ends with the imagery of "Severed Crossed Fingers," grounded in the physical world instead of an emotional one. She bristles at the imbalance in gender relations but also extricates herself from them, an agent too wary and self-possessed to allow herself to cave. Much like her public persona, the distance is a careful calculation: We don't get to know the "real" Annie Clark, just the one she'll allow us to see.
In the end, that persona may well make St. Vincent difficult to relate to for a wider audience. Likewise, her cryptic nature and "weirdo" facade may limit her mass appeal. Yet that's not the point for Clark: In so doing, she's stayed true to her art while maintaining ownership of it. And every once in a while, she can let herself enjoy it.