St. Vincent took to the stage of Hobart’s MAC2 over the weekend, bringing her Fear the Future tour to Dark Mofo, the city’s annual winter festival. The show didn’t tie into the festival’s usual themes of darkness and death. Instead, Fear the Future explored ideas of performance and femininity, themes common to Annie Clark’s art over her 11 year career, and ones mired in their own particular kind of darkness.
The thing that initially drew me to St. Vincent was that she was one of the few musicians I had heard who could so easily touch on that feeling of internal numbness in her work. There was a cold heart beneath the delicate arrangements on Actor and Strange Mercy, but in a deeply astute way, as opposed to a bad way. She was a master of painting the void, that raw emptiness that goes hand in hand with depression. She’s always written about it, right since the beginning: on “Now, Now”, the first song on her first album, Clark sang “I’m not any, any, any, any, any, any, anything at all”, a requiem, of sorts, for that strange feeling that your inherent physicality is at odds with your actual existence. The sensation that under your skin, there might be nothing. Throughout her work, Clark sings about women haunted by this feeling, desperate to hide from the void through performance and costuming. She tells stories of cheerleaders and dominatrixes on Strange Mercy, bored housewives on Actor, a whole variety of unnerved women elsewhere.
Clark’s interrogation of these themes only became more refined as the years went by, her fascination with darkness and emptiness channelled into more terrifyingly suffocating stories. “Marry Me”, her debut album’s first single, depicted a character begging her lover to marry her so they could “do what married people do” just for some stability. Actor found numb housewives looking for ways to feel alive again, “paint[ing] the black hole blacker” and looking for thrills in the midst of upper-middle-class boredom, as she sang on that album’s opener “The Strangers”. By the time Clark reached St. Vincent, her fourth album, these ideas were cosmic and abstract and more terrifying. “Am I the only one in the only world?” she asked on opening track “Rattlesnake”, before being chased through the desert by the titular predator: trying to escape the void, only to get bitten.
It feels telling that all of these songs made appearances in the first of Clark’s two sets at Dark Mofo. Fear the Future, an aggressively stylised show running nearly two hours long, felt less like a traditional live performance as much as it did creepy performance art, a visual exploration of Clark’s empty women. The fact that the show was split into two acts––the first, a set comprising older material, and the second a set of Masseduction in full––added to this; watching Clark on the collosal MAC2 stage was akin to theatre.
Appearing at one end of the stage in a glossy pink leotard and thigh high boots, Clark, clutching a microphone with both hands, began to perform “Marry Me”. The vast majority of the stage hidden by a curtain, Clark, elbows skewed awkwardly like a doll, stood unnaturally still as she sang. There’s always been something unnerving about Clark’s stillness onstage––brilliant in the way it subverted tropes of the pained male virtuoso guitarist, but unnerving nonetheless––but there was something about the taut posing and Clark’s eerie gaze, always trained at a spot slightly above the audience, that was particularly cold. Clark was a doll, ready to be posed and dressed up in any which way. As Clark moved from “Marry Me” to “Now, Now” and “The Strangers”, the curtain pulled back, revealing microphone stands set up at specific points onstage. She would move to a new one for each song, standing completely still as guitar techs strapped new guitars onto her––always the same model, but a different colour each time. For each song, Clark would move into a new pose: lying prostrate for “Strange Mercy”, fists raised for “Digital Witness”, and so on: rather than slip into the identities of her different characters, Clark’s living doll costume served as a kind of brutalist metaphor for the line she was drawing through the set. Unlike most live performance, emotional engagement wasn’t the goal here. Clark was sketching out something more immersive, drawing us into the numbed space that her characters occupy.
Little was changed about the actual stage setup for the Masseduction set, except that Clark performed on a small podium in the centre of the stage, in front of a colossal screen displaying videos for each song. I didn’t like Masseduction when it came out––I felt like the new pop shine buffed away some of the most interesting crags and tics in Clark’s work––but seeing the album performed in full like this helped some of the less formed ideas of the album crystalise for me. Masseduction works best as a complete performance, and even though some songs still felt like duds live––”Pills”, for example, still feels like cheap moralism to me––the show’s staging generally elevated the record’s overall concept. The void, “back and unblinking”, as Clark says in the record’s first track, is constantly looming over Masseduction like a dark cloud. But unlike her last few records, Clark doesn’t personify the void through her usual archetype of the empty woman, desperate for feeling. Instead, Masseduction plays like St. Vincent’s version of the Inferno, our protagonist fleeing from one circle of hell to another to another again. Whether hell looks like Los Angeles or New York or Paris doesn’t matter: it’s all hell regardless. The staging of the Masseduction set reflected this. Standing on an island, she had nowhere to go, with the spectre of the void looming over her. Initially, videos of Clark flash on the screen, but that screen eventually warped and mutated, leaving nothing but flickering colours and, during “Young Lover”, stars. The illusion was gone; all that was left was Clark and the void.
Clark performed entirely to a pre-recorded track throughout, without a band. People generally seem to take issue with this kind of ‘karaoke’ performance––more than a few people told me they didn’t like the lack of band after the show––but there’s a wonderfully self-reflexive quality about a karaoke performance that was perfect for Fear the Future. Performing with a full band creates a kind of self-consciousness; for a performer so deeply cerebral as Clark, seeing her perform with other musicians always felt like a dilution, of sorts, of her ideas. The best parts of her wonderful tour for 2014’s St. Vincent were when she would sit atop a podium in the middle of the stage, alone, and address the audience. Watching Clark alone onstage feels like entering the void she’s so fond of writing about, and so it makes sense that Fear the Future, so concerned with a certain kind of abstract world-building, would choose to focus only on Clark. While watching Melbourne musician Spike Fuck recently, who performs only with a track, a colleague observed that the lack of a band created a hyper-intimacy, “like watching her sing into the mirror.” The same concept applies to the St. Vincent show: karaoke is about performing emotion and narrative more than it is about performing music. Without the confines of a live band around her, Clark is free to treat Fear the Future as a theatre show or art piece, a world to inhabit and act in rather than just a stage to stand on.
The reason people have a distaste for this kind of performance is because we’ve been conditioned to think of overly complex live performance as the pinnacle of authenticity. Tash Sultana for example, who plays a profusion of instruments, is praised for her skill and dexterity; never mind that there’s little to actually sort through in the music. For Clark to strip away a band––in many ways taking down a barrier that might have muted criticisms of her ‘going pop’––feels more true to her art. There is something deeply arresting about watching one figure on an empty stage; it’s unnerving and weird and the antithesis of a Big Rock Performance. But that’s what made it work: Clark has spent over a decade trying to show us an image of the void. During Fear the Future, she pulled us in.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian editor. Follow him on Twitter.