On the evening of Oct. 22, 2009, Annie Clark donned her guitar and stepped onstage at Castaways, a garage-sized dive bar in Ithaca, N.Y. Situated between a muddy canal and a gleaming fitness center, the venue was stippled with garish nautical kitsch: life preservers, light-up palm trees, a logo featuring a fish in sunglasses. Clark, barely 27 and fresh off the release of Actor, her sophomore album, seemed awestruck by the packed house. She played an uninterrupted hour and a half before admitting she'd feared no one would show up. Her voice was shaking.
This Annie Clark, with her hesitations, deprecations, and coy anxieties, will not be present at Oakland's Fox Theater this week. She will, most likely, never be seen again. Instead, audiences will behold a sort of snarling demigod — a stoic virtuoso with a repertoire sharp as a switchblade and a shock of hair dyed the color of a great white's fin.
So what changed? Well, Clark's secret, like most juicy ones, got out. Strange Mercy, her 2011 follow-up to Actor, was a monstrous success — a near-masterpiece that oscillated between fragile and frenzied, precise and unkempt. The next time I saw St. Vincent, 17 months after the Castaways encounter, it was a wholly different experience. All of the baroque elegance present on Actor — the spectral harmonies, the woodwinds, the plinking guitar lines — had collapsed into something scorched and turbulent. Clark was in front of thousands now, tearing through songs like "Surgeon" and "Northern Lights" with a wild dog's ferocity. Her band, which had functioned more as a mini-orchestra before, was pared down to just a drummer and two keyboardists (who themselves looked quite grim, and were positioned facing off from the stage's edges, as if one minor chord away from launching a nuclear strike). For an encore, she rattled through her punk-flavored "Krokodil," then dived off the stage, breaking her foot.
By the time she appeared with David Byrne at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre to support their collaborative 2012 album, Love This Giant, her transformation was nearly complete. The evening felt like a sort of decadent performance art: Clark and Byrne, orbiting each other eagerly, singing and shimmying in unison with their eight-piece brass band. While the arrangements were impeccably executed — songs like "I Am an Ape" and "I Should Watch TV" felt shipshape and regal — they seemed at times like detours for Clark. Indeed, though Love This Giant was released in 2012, it was mostly conceptualized in 2009 and 2010 — shortly after she finished Actor, and well before Strange Mercy's low growl began to register. Even as listeners reveled in the album's intricacies, they secretly craved the menace Clark hinted at in 2011. They waited, with equal parts excitement and fear, to see what she would dream up next.
St. Vincent, released on Feb. 24, doesn't just employ all the tools Clark possesses; it also shows that she knows exactly how to use them, and when to holster them. It kicks off with "Rattlesnake," a buzzing electro-funk workout that scatters a fistful of Strange Mercy grit atop a Love This Giant-style beat. It then hopscotches across a wide spectrum of textures, by turns screeching ("Birth in Reverse"), prancing ("Digital Witness"), and lamenting ("I Prefer Your Love"). From start to finish, it's more beautiful than Actor and more sonically fierce than Strange Mercy. It is not, as Pitchfork writer Lindsay Zoladz stated, "the Platonic ideal of a St. Vincent record, executing with perfect poise everything we already know she can do." Rather, it's a clicking together of pieces that hadn't quite lined up before — the harsh and the lush, the off-kilter and the accessible. Its moments of restraint aren't pulled punches. They speak to a degree of control that Clark has, for the past five years, only been reaching toward.
This unflinching mastery — over her music, image and identity — is perhaps the best framework for understanding Clark in 2014. She no longer simply performs as "St. Vincent"; she embodies the title, inextricably and unapologetically. Her music, like that of Radiohead, is now looked to as a sort of barometer of indie rock. It both sets standards and demolishes them. It is, furthermore, no accident that the album's cover features her in a sparkling ball gown, perched atop a pink throne, shooting daggers. So forceful does she now appear, as both an artist and an entity, that it's hard to imagine her as a 115-pound mortal, in a slim black dress, sweating under the lights of an Ithaca dive bar.
Hard but not impossible. Near the end of her set at Castaways, Clark closed her eyes and asked the audience to give her a moment. She didn't want to exaggerate or misrepresent what she was about to say. She was nervous. Hedging the very bets about herself and her music that are now completely off.
"I think this is the best show we've had on this tour yet," she said to the tiny crowd.
We shrieked our approval. All 200 of us.