St. Vincent can do anything. Maybe not quite literally, but generally speaking, Annie Clark is the kind of artist that always feels foolish to bet against. It’s not just her own brand of adventurous songwriting, which has been bravely evolving for the last decade and resulted in numerous reimaginings of both her musical aesthetic and her visual presentation. No, Annie Clark just seems like she’s good at everything she puts her mind to.
Within the last few years, she’s tried her hand at directing films (she offered up a segment for the all-female horror anthology XX), she’s played the role of fill-in bandleader on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and scored an Intel 3D digital experience at Coachella. She’s shown acting chops on Portlandia and dutifully taken on the roll of musical collaborator with David Byrne on the Love This Giant project. She’s been comfortable in the background, too, both in her early days as a member of The Polyphonic Spree and simply backing up her friend Sufjan Stevens at this year’s Academy Awards. And in even more idiosyncratic territory, she famously showed off her soccer skills for Rookie, designed her own guitar, and has racked up nearly half a million Youtube plays on a clip that just features her looking into the camera and saying “I love you.”
Tuesday night at the Belasco Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, St. Vincent once again stepped into unfamiliar territory and there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that she would again excel. The concert was billed as “An Intimate Performance” in which she would perform her songs with nothing but her longtime friend Thomas Bartlett accompanying her on piano. The setup had been quietly debuted a month earlier in London, and for anyone paying close enough attention — she released a piano version of her Masseduction closer “Slow Disco,” redubbed “Slow Slow Disco — it teased the beginning of something larger.
Stripped down or acoustic shows are hardly groundbreaking, but St. Vincent had something bigger in mind. For one, the show saw her putting down her trademark guitar and just singing. During the set, she noted how foreign the idea of holding a microphone is for her, how she didn’t put enough forethought into how she was holding it, and how she worried that her pinky-in-the-air form came across as too bourgeoise (she promptly wrapped the microphone cable around her arm and did her best Henry Rollins impression at this realization).
On paper, watching St. Vincent paring down her songs to just their vocals and piano sounded like something could be lost in the process, like it could even run the risk of being boring. But St. Vincent embodied a much more classic role on this Los Angeles evening, taking cues from the lounge singing troubadours of years past like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Sure, a big part of the performance was how she brought the songs to life musically, but she also becomes something of a standup comedian in between. Nearly every number was prefaced with a story, and almost all of the stories had punchlines, leading to insight to how “Slow Disco” was named (via a text message conversation with Revolution member Wendy Melvoin), where “Smoking Section” was written (on a cruise from Sweden to Poland), and how to explain to a little brother about a family dog’s death. She admitted to being a little tipsy and that inebriation led to loose, often hilarious banter. It’s a far different job to go from rock star to full-on entertainer, and it was one that St. Vincent proved to be completely ready for.
And that concept, “entertainer,” also encompassed the musical portion of the evening. To call the rearrangements simply “piano accompaniment” would massively sell short the work that Bartlett does. Often times one of his hands was literally inside the piano plucking strings while his other hand hammered out keys, and at moments he could even use the instrument to form a sense of percussion. This wasn’t just following the essential chords featured in the songs, they were often complex interpretations of the album’s backing instrumentation that sounded nothing like the original piece.
And though St. Vincent was technically not performing a rock concert, that didn’t mean she had to stop being a star. Her stage presence is a piece of art in its own right, with her inability to stand still, her frequent yelps and shouts between verses, and the pure emotion that she pours into every one of her songs becoming a transportive experience. Though she admitted that most of these songs were inherently sad, the breadth of this St. Vincent performance took the audience to many complex emotional places. The indie rock world where she comes from is filled with performers that shy away from the spotlight, but St. Vincent thrives under attention. She doesn’t want anyone to take their eyes off of her, and gives all the reasons in the world for that to never happen.
By the time the set concluded, concertgoers received an email announcing that many of the songs performed that night would be released next week, on October 12, as Masseducation, a studio recording of these new piano-and-vocal arrangements. There was some immediate online celebration that the songs would be stripped of their Jack Antonoff influence, forgetting the fact that he literally helped write some of these tunes. But this isn’t a case of the songs coming closer to the vision of St. Vincent as it is an example of just how many forms in which she can find success. In its new presentation, “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is even weepier and more tragic, “Hang On Me” oozes with drama and bigger theatrical urgency, and the coda of “Pills” stands in further contrast to the song’s tonally unrelated first half.
New versions of old albums often feel minor, but in St. Vincent’s hands, nothing feels minor. Her remixes are often as exciting as original compositions, her DJ sets almost as anticipated as full live performances. And now with a new version of Masseduction on the horizon, those songs will instantly find their place as more essential work. It’s not just that she can do anything she tries, it’s that she does it well enough to make you reconsider everything you know about her. “Songs are living things. They grow, they evolve, they change their moods and personalities over time,” she said in a statement about “Slow Slow Disco,” but really, the same idea can be applied to her entire artistic oeuvre. St. Vincent as a concept is never static, and that makes her one of the most important contemporary musicians we have.