In lieu of a support act, St. Vincent has produced a short film. This might sound rather pretentious, self-absorbed even, but surely fans of the alt-rock artist have become accustomed to a little pretension by now. The film, titled ‘The Birthday Party’, is a dark comedy in which a wife finds her husband dead on the morning of their young daughter’s birthday. It mingles elements of suspense, drama and black humour to good effect, though leaves you feeling a little unfulfilled, as though the story, actors and director had more potential than we saw on screen. Fitting, then, given the bold but frustrating show that follows.
When St. Vincent, real name Annie Clarke, first appears, she is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Wearing a hot pink latex outfit coupled with what can only be described as plush pink armbands, she is every inch the pop provocateur. She is revealed by a curtain that opens barely a few inches to show Clarke standing at the far left of the stage, illuminated by a spotlight for opening song ‘Marry Me’. It’s an unusual choice, the title track from St. Vincent’s debut album from 2007 a melodic and somewhat twee song that is vastly different to the frenetic glam-rock style she has since adopted.
Rather than dive headfirst into her latest album, the vibrant MASSEDUCTION, Clarke continues with her earliest work, playing another track from her first album and then two from her second. It feels almost like a test, Clarke weeding out the superfans from the newbies, and this makes for a somewhat grating introduction. The chronological approach demonstrates the evolution of St. Vincent from quaint folksy singer-songwriter to ferocious alt-rock master, but it’s a pity it takes so long to reach the latter when that’s probably where we should have started.
Unusually – and disappointingly – there is no live band. When the curtain is finally opened all the way, only three mic stands are revealed, Clarke taking it in turns to sing at each, switching guitars between songs. It’s not until the familiar riff of ‘Cruel’ followed by a stomping rendition of ‘Cheerleader’ that things really start to get going. However even then, the lack of band makes the stage feel somewhat empty. Though Clarke makes for a thrilling performer, her guitar skills on excellent form as she thrashes through her back catalogue, there is still the impression of stillness on stage. In the past, Clarke has been such a dynamic, energetic showperson, but tonight she is largely static, alone on the stage with just a backing track and her guitar. For ‘Cruel Mercy’ she lies on the floor in a foetal position. It’s theatrical, but not especially practical when most of Brixton Academy isn’t close enough to see.
Clarke takes a while to hit her stride, but when she does, she is nothing short of marvellous. The three tracks taken from 2014’s self-titled album prove the biggest crowd-pleasers, Clarke snarling her way through the frenetic ‘Birth In Reverse’ a rocky arrangement of ‘Rattlesnake’ and a superb restyling of ‘Digital Witness’. These are the tracks that feel big enough to fill not just the Brixton Academy, but a stadium. While Clarke’s early material are more fitting of bars and smaller venues, it’s her stonking later work that was custom-built for settings like these.
But just as Clarke has worked the crowd into a frenzy, she disappears. A short interlude follows, in which odd ambient music is played over a slowly zooming image of Clarke’s face. It’s another point when a full band would have come in handy, as the empty stage accompanied by slow, meditative music is something of a comedown when the crowd should be firmly on the up. When Clarke does reappear, she’s in a new outfit and finally ready to throw herself into her latest album.
Every track of MASSEDUCTION gets an airing, Clarke playing the album from start to finish. She excels on the wacky odd-pop of ‘Pills’ and the biting electro-rock of ‘Los Ageless’, standing tall and poised, brandishing her guitar like a weapon. It’s not until ‘New York’, Clarke’s comeback ballad, that she appears vulnerable, no longer squaring up to the crowd but cowering before them. It’s a nice juxtaposition, Clarke embodying the role of vulnerable lover just as convincingly as she does the snarling rock star.
The final three tracks of the album are some of the slowest. While ‘Smoking Section’ is a beautiful song, it doesn’t have the authority of a closing track. Perhaps this could have been remedied by a full-throttled encore, but when Clarke exits the stage at the song’s end, there is no more St. Vincent to be had.
On the first night of her tour, Clarke displayed her enviable abilities as a performer, musician and artist. But the absence of a full band, as well as a slow start, coupled with a predictable second act often made for a frustrating show. St. Vincent is undoubtedly an artist with all the talent and resources to put on a spellbinding glam-rock extravaganza, but tonight she was hindered by a sparse stage set-up and a rickety set list.