The Neptune Theatre
As of October 13th, 2011, I have been to the Neptune Theatre twice. My first time at the former Landmark cinema was more than three years ago; the occasion being the 48-Hour Film Festival. My part in our entry was doubly noteworthy for me, because offscreen I wrote the music and onscreen had the enviable role of “nude organist.” I was more of a transitional motif than a character per se, but it nonetheless featured my first (and only, so far) nude scene(s) in a film. It was a bizarre experience, to be sure, watching myself “play” organ nude on the big screen. But, strange as it was, it wasn’t a very vulnerable experience. The nude organist was humorous and I didn’t feel embarrassed, or as if I’d really lain bare anything of importance.
As might be expected, such a first visit inevitably framed my second. This month, I saw songwriter St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) perform there. Since my last trip, all parties involved – Annie Clark, The Neptune Theater, and myself – have undergone changes. Clark had what she called (in lyric and stage talk) a “Champaigne Year,” filled with unspecified rough patches. The Neptune no longer just shows movies and has transformed into a burgeoning music venue. And I’ve graduated from college and have a new group of friends with whom I play music (and hope to for a while.) These changes imbued my expectations for the show with hackneyed, half-formed thoughts as to whether St. Vincent, a singer whose persona has always been anything but shy, would evoke a certain nakedness of spirit in her performance. Or, put another way, would her confessional vulnerability be more effective than my physical nudity was to the filmgoers?
I had more than autobiographical reasons to speculate about Clark’s onstage persona. Annie is currently touring in support of her most recent slice of magnificence, Strange Mercy. The album has garnered a great deal of well-deserved praise and has been touted -rightly, to a degree- as a much rawer, more confessional album than her previous two. Much in the same way that Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz was approached last year, it has been deemed inseparable from Clark’s own year, during which she wrote much of the album on foray here in Seattle. Throughout the night, she made it clear that she couldn’t thank Seattle enough, describing her return as a homecoming, though not of the sort with a cheap “dress from Macy’s,” but rather because the audience was “fucking awesome.”
But, while this was a more vulnerable Clark, her time on stage seemed very comfortable with being a production, despite understandable angst at the pressure to be “the best of the bourgeoisie.” Midway through the set, she told a story which stuck with me throughout the rest of the concert. This anecdote tied into her song, “Just the Same But Brand New”, from her second album, and concerned a friend of hers who worked for a Manhattan socialite. The latter owned a mid-century home on the East Side, and hadn’t renovated her house or its furniture since she bought it. Recently, she requested Annie’s friend, an interior designer, to do so, but only so that it can (creepily) look just like it did sixty years ago. Her manner of storytelling was perfect, as she didn’t bother to tie it into the song; she let us do that, and its image – a crumbling, rich woman clinging not only to the past, but to its artifice – stuck to my brain, and put to name something visceral that I often felt with St. Vincent ‘s first two albums (and continue to feel with her third.)
Clark’s persona is either pitched as pixie-like, or confessional, but is most accurately off kilter. Her songs remind me of a sweaty, tense Tennessee Williams play set in the South; everything is in order, but something is very wrong, though the oddities have to emerge from the woodwork (or the gilded bed frame.) Her vulnerability is real; “The Year of the Tiger” deals with her difficult year and her discussion of the songwriting process left no suggestion that these songs were about somebody else. But the choreographed lights (whose properties were apropos of the songs: sharp as knives during “Surgeon” and ice-cream colored on “Northern Lights”) and gold-framed stage brought to mind one of David Lynch’s solitary songstresses, like the bar singer in Twin Peaks, whose overwrought aesthetics show that something is off in his alternate universe. Her work definitely has an edge, but it’s a controlled, precise edge, like that of Tom Verlaine, the genius guitarist behind Television, and such craftsmanship makes the eeriness of her work possible – more than would be conceivable with nothing more than rough guitar accompaniment, as would befit the prototypical “raw” sound.
Interestingly, the moment when she seemed at her most obviously vulnerable came when she played her one cover of the night. When she prepped the crowd for a version of The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” and discovered, at the lack of response, that few in the audience had heard of them. Yet suddenly, she seemed all the more in her element, channeling the frenetic, punk roots of her sound that can easily be forgotten in the beautiful production for which she has become renowned. And it marked to me a far greater shift than did the vulnerability of her original lyrics, as her covers in the past have been fairly tame and well known; e.g. Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and “Dig a Pony” by The Beatles, both of which served a more bourgeois aesthetic. In covering TPG, something came unhinged, her guitar riffs let go of their punctuated control, and she sounded more like Iggy Pop. Wedged in the middle of the set, it contrasted wonderfully with her own work, which she executed very differently.
For all of St. Vincent’s third-album yearnings to not be just another “cheerleader,” who “tell[s] people what they want to hear,” her concert convinced me that the process of has left her all the more self-assured as a performer and all that such a designator carries with it. No longer content to be played by those around her, she knows how to draw us in. Her sheen is all the sweeter and her edge is all the rougher, but most importantly, both spring from a singular alternate universe that she has created, populated by dilettantes, disappointed characters from New-Wave films, and mistreated maids – all of them far more interesting than my turn as a naked organist.