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St. Vincent plays Portland: abuse, poverty, and 70’s glam

by | Sep 11, 2021 | Culture, Featured

St. Vincent kicked off her “Daddy’s Home” tour in Portland, at Thompson’s Point on Friday, September 3. The show, coming on the heels of recent performances by Sleater-Kinney and Wilco, represented a triumphant return for both St. Vincent to Portland, as well as of live music in general in the (seemingly unending) era of COVID-19. How long it will last, however, remains to be seen.

St. Vincent, the performing moniker of Annie Clark, has emerged in the last 15 years as one of indie-rock’s most compelling and idiosyncratic artists. Clark cut her teeth playing in the Polyphonic Spree and as a touring musician for Sufjan Stevens before releasing her first album, the irresistibly bipolar, Marry Me, in 2007. Marry Me garnered critical acclaim, with many critics praising the contrast between Clark’s mezzo-soprano voice and her polysemous lyrics.

Clark, like her musical influences, David Bowie and Kate Bush, seems to reinvent herself with every album, constantly leaving listeners perplexed as to who the “real” Annie Clark is. As Ryan Leas writes in Stereogum, “Every St. Vincent album has its own character.”

“Though plenty of indie artists of her generation chose a moniker for what are actually solo projects,” writes Leas, “Annie Clark has used ‘St. Vincent’ to the fullest extent—an empty name ready to be filled with the narcotized distance of Strange Mercy or near-future cult leader of St. Vincent or the bugged-out, lurid dominatrix of Masseduction.”

Clark, accompanied by a new live band, complete with three backup singers, kicked-off the proceedings with the fractured, “Digital Witness.” The track, from 2014’s self-titled album, contemplates the meaning of life in the selfie age. “If I can’t show it/If you can’t see me,” Clark muses in the chorus, “What’s the point of doing anything?”

“Rattlesnake,” and “Birth in Reverse,” both also from St. Vincent, rounded out the opening songs. And Clark indulged the audience with fan favorites like “New York,” “Los Ageless,” “Cheerleader,” and “(Fast) Slow Disco,” throughout the set.

Clark drew heavily from her latest album, the 1970s-inspired, Daddy’s Home, which she released in May. The record—produced by the ubiquitous, Jack Antonoff—is a veritable love-letter to ‘70s blues, funk, and glam. Indeed, the echoes of Stevie Wonder, David Gilmour, and, of course, Bowie, reverberate throughout Daddy’s Home. It is, to be certain, a curious departure for an artist who has always seemed more interested in crafting the art-pop of the future, rather than mining the past.

St. Vincent’s new album, Daddy’s Home

“I felt I had gone as far as I possibly could with angularity,” Clark said in a promotional interview for the new record.

Lyrically, Daddy’s Home is Clark’s most confessional record to date. Partly inspired by her father’s recent release from prison for white-collar crime, Daddy paints portraits of down-on-their-luck working-class characters, just struggling to get by. Themes of poverty, abusive relationships, and social stigmatization permeate the album.

Lead single, “Pay Your Way in Pain,” sets up the narrative to dense, claustrophobic synths that often threaten to suffocate the listener. “I went to the park just to watch the little children,” Clark sings. “But the mothers saw my heels and they said I wasn’t welcome.”

“So I went back home/I was feeling kinda queasy,” the lyrics continue. “But all the locks were changed/My baby wouldn’t see me.”

“Pay Your Way in Pain” has more than a passing similarity to Bowie’s “Fame,” especially in the way Clark curls her lips around the word “pain,” in the chorus.

“Live in the Dream,” documents the inevitable comedown in a lush, swirling orchestral piece that goes on for nearly seven minutes. The song’s synthy chord progression pays homage to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them,” while the lyrics, “Hello … Do you know where you are?” seem to recall the opening lyrics to “Comfortably Numb.”

The infectiously catchy “Down” finds Clark plotting revenge on an abusive lover. “You hit me one time, imagine my surprise,” she sings over funky bass lines and a wah-wah guitar solo. “You hit me two times, you got yourself a fight.”

“My Baby Wants a Baby,” reimagines Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” as a declaration of independence and a rejection of motherhood, rather than an ode to domestic tranquility. “I want to play guitar all day/Make all my meals in microwaves/How can it be wrong?” Clark muses. Clark ruminates over whether having a child—or, indeed, failing to do so—will erase her own artistic legacy.

And the band’s closing song, the hazy, psychedelic, “The Melting of the Sun,” is easily the album’s highlight. With references to Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Nina Simone, and Marilyn Monroe, the song celebrates female artists who defied silencing and censorship in order to speak truth to patriarchal power. While Clark praises these women forebears, she also acknowledges her relative degree of “privilege” when compared to the struggles her heroes had to endure.

“But me I never cried,” Clark sings. “To tell the truth, I lied.” It is a stunning admission for an artist who is constantly shapeshifting from one album to the next.

Both “Live in the Dream,” and the “Melting of the Sun,” were performed as part of a second encore. The first encore consisted of older tracks, “Year of the Tiger,” and “Your Lips are Red.” The latter song, a slow-burner of pent-up fuzz distortion mixed with ethereal strings, finally exploded into a climax of feedback squall, with Clark shoving her custom-made Ernie Ball guitar into a nearby amplifier, and leaving it there.

Throughout the show, St. Vincent and her band expressed genuine gratitude at being back on the road again. I am already looking forward to her next visit.

Adam Marletta writes on all things rock-n-roll for Pine and Roses.

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