With one leg braced behind her, Annie Clark rocked her torso slowly back and forth, looking down at her vintage guitar as its noise began to fill Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater more and more completely. Then Clark looked up, about half way into the crowd, with a brief, white glare. My girlfriend and I turned to each other with eyebrows raised. This moment was fairly typical for Clark as I came to know her as a performing artist. It surprised me, though, that such moments came from the recording artist I had come to know as St. Vincent. I knew her music before I went to the show, and had listened to it with the intent of writing about it sometime. I had played her songs over and over, made sure I understood the lyrics, and read what others had to say about her. “The Dallas native has become a master of subverting her picture-perfectness with violence, rage, and mystery,” said Pitchfork of her most recent album, 2011’s Strange Mercy. I nodded and said yes to this line of criticism like a good Pitchfork reader, and I even espoused these views to those of my friends unacquainted with St. Vincent’s work.
Now though, I realize that what I really got about Clark was the picture-perfectness. Although I recognized the subversive themes, I did not feel the distinct strangeness of some of her music. Glaring out into the crowd before ripping into another strident guitar solo, Clark seemed to know my situation.
Clark’s song “Chloe in the Afternoon,” is based on the cheery movie of the same name, but as she explained, her version takes the narrative someplace darker. Her protagonist carries a “horse hair whip” and there are “no kisses, no real needs.” I don’t know how I managed to listen to these lyrics before without getting the chills. I had a similar experience with the live version of “Cruel.” The guitar took a more distinct place in the live version; it conveyed a specific emotion apart from the rest of the instruments.
Generally, I’m noticing now, as I approach Clark’s albums post-show, that I had missed this depth on the studio versions, failing to look past their gloss. Live though, the gloss came off and Clark forced the audience to bear the full energy behind the songs. The guitar solos had a special sauciness and the songs’ finishes were furious and full, and the recording’s precise restraint gave way to full explication. Put simply, Clark rocked out hard, and my listening experience just did not prepare me for that. If you have a chance to catch St. Vincent on the remainder of her truly Strange Mercy Tour, go. The full, exceptional freakiness of Clark is a dish best served live.