St. Vincent rewrites the blueprint for modern musical success 

Detached austerity and relatable radiance merge in the forward-thinking art-pop of St. Vincent

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ST. VINCENT with Matthew E. White

6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7 | The Beacham, 46 N. Orange Ave. | 407-246-1419 | | $25-$40

More than any other modern pop artist, St. Vincent is a stylistic enigma. Born Annie Clark, her fashion sense and aesthetic mindset radiate a refined mixture of outlandishness and icy cool — think David Bowie mixed with Madonna, but as image-conscious as Lady Gaga. Her four full-lengths released since 2009 are all over the genre map — avant-garde art rock, polyrhythmic dance-pop, robotic R&B. Her latest album, February’s St. Vincent, is full of funky intergalactic explorations a la Prince, smashed up with the noisy tendencies of Tune-Yards and imbued with the symphonic ambitions of Dirty Projectors.

Even her moniker seems otherworldly, even messianistic – Vincent de Paul was a 15th century French Catholic saint who dedicated himself to serving the poor, but Clark said she borrowed the nom de plume from a Nick Cave song that references the New York hospital where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas passed on. “It’s the place where poetry comes to die,” she told the New York Times in 2009. “That’s me.” Poised atop a pink synthetic throne on the cover of St. Vincent, she looks like a bloodless dictator who could slay a timeless, universal form of music.

Paradoxically, something about Clark and her work feels inherently human. Her crystalline voice floats effortlessly above the mechanical grooves of her most popular songs, a characteristic she maybe learned as a member of psychedelic chorus the Polyphonic Spree in the mid-2000s. Her lyrics are intimate and detail-driven, often straddling an unseen divide between day-to-day happiness and overarching neurosis (she’s talked openly about her past battles with panic attacks and other mental health issues).

On “Rattlesnake,” what seems like a Biblical creation myth is actually the literal retelling of an encounter with a rattlesnake while walking naked on a friend’s Texas ranch in 2013. Her first album, 2007’s Marry Me, approaches love from a confused, often idealized vantage point; 2009’s Actor directly addresses the creative sleights of hand that performers constantly undergo; and 2011’s Strange Mercy was an exercise in self-flagellation. Yet much of her strongest material feels sung — almost whispered — directly into listeners’ ears.

Then there’s the trademark St. Vincent live production, full of electrifying visual elements, mechanistic dance moves and unhinged guitar-shredding solos that surprise until Clark fully owns them with ferocious, impressive technical skill. Older, punker material like “Krokodil” often finds her crowd surfing, stage diving, even throwing a few elbows in mosh pits of her own making; her touring drummer, Matt Johnson, told Pitchfork earlier this year that such physical acts are a sort of “primal scream therapy – that idea that through convulsive catharsis you can allow some inner part of yourself to become exposed.” Of his reaction as a band member, Johnson added, “It rips through your body because you’re facing somebody who is literally embracing the process of pulling apart at the seams, in public, for the purposes of what that can do for a performance.”

Early on, that didn’t seem to be Clark’s M.O., even though she had a thing for examining how artists portray themselves to the public. The album covers of Marry Me and Actor, along with most press photos of the period, feature Clark peering quizzically into the camera or turned in slight profile, lips affixed in a hint of a smile, big brown eyes open and searching, frizzled chestnut hair falling loosely. 2011’s Strange Mercy, which broke her to a mainstream audience, got away from that intimate, personalized approach. But it was re-engineered for St. Vincent, the aesthetics of which focus on Clark’s regally futuristic fashion sense, gun-metal gray shocks of hair and razor-sharp cheekbones, all of which wipe most hints of emotion from her face.

Again, the paradox is that Clark still seems approachable – even relatable. She’s balanced collaborations with challenging indie titans like David Byrne, Swans and Amanda Palmer with recent opening stints for huge hard rock bands like the Black Keys and Queens of the Stone Age. Outspoken stances on feminist issues are expressed through performances on dude-driven shows like Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers. An uncompromising approach to the creation of her music led to headlining spots at every major musical festival. St. Vincent’s spilling-over-the-edges career reflects the past grand ambitions of artists as disparate as David Bowie, Madonna and Lady Gaga — while laying a new blueprint for critically and commercially acclaimed multi-platform success.

Even five years ago, Clark seemed to know that such an approach would pay off: “You can’t apologize your way into people’s hearts,” she told the New York Times in 2009. “You have to go full force.” Putting it even more bluntly to Pitchfork in February, she said, “You have to stick to your guns, otherwise you’re truly lost – and I mean in the Dante sense of the word. I could’ve made different choices in my career to step more into the middle of the road and cross my fingers, but if I don’t have the music, then I may as well fucking die.”

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