How savvy a show woman is St. Vincent, the art-pop songwriter and note-shredding guitar hero born Annie Clark who played a packed-to-the-gills sold-out Electric Factory on Tuesday night?
Savvy enough that when she got to “New York,” the heartsick song from her top-flight new album, Masseduction (the candy colored video was directed by Philly visual artist Alex Da Corte), she paused before singing the “New York isn’t New York without you, love” opening line.
Instead of romanticizing the Big Apple, she had a custom lyric that catered to the mores of the local population: “Philly isn’t Philly,” she sang a cappella, with a sly grin, “without Wawa.”
Hey, it beats cheesesteak stage patter.
The convenience store humor — and also some strategic use of the word jawn — came in the third act of a show that was visually arresting and unconventionally structured, to say the least.
It started with a screening of “The Birthday Party,” a short film Clark cowrote with Roxanne Benjamin that marks her directorial debut and that is part of the horror anthology XX of four films all helmed by women. (It’s available on iTunes and video on demand services.)
The black comedy tells the story of a woman who realizes her husband is dead on the morning of her child’s birthday party and decides to hide the body in a panda suit rather than spoil the soiree. It’s a mildly amusing, suitably creepy, but not all that involving tale. The night can only get better when the opening act is your own mediocre horror movie.
Next, St. Vincent played a 15-song set of material in chronological order from the four albums that led up to Masseduction (pronounced “mass seduction.”)
She played them, and no one else did. Dressed in thigh-high red patent leather stiletto heels and a matching leotard, she was on stage by herself, playing ripping leads and chunky chord progressions to prerecorded backing tracks. For that portion of the show, she performed mostly in front of a red curtain that called attention to her solo-ness on stage.
In her recent albums — including 2014’s St. Vincent and 2012’s Love This Giant collaboration with David Byrne, St. Vincent has productively played with notions of art and authenticity, and at times delighted in drawing on influences like Devo as she portrayed herself as a semicyborg seeking the soul inside the machine.
The minimalist presentation at the Factory on Tuesday was a continuation of those themes. But though it looked supercool — and refreshingly different from your run-of-the mill rock show — it also had a static effect. The staging was reminiscent of Kanye West’s 2008 Glow in the Dark tour, where the narcissistic genius placed himself alone on a stage all evening to emphasize his emotional isolation, and also Kendrick Lamar’s tour this year for DAMN. But in the rappers’ cases, there were live musicians in the room hidden from view. St. Vincent’s singing and playing was fiercely committed, lively, and dynamic, but the overall effect often felt rote and hurried as she worked to keep in step with the backing tapes.
The show got better in its final third. After a brief intermission and a costume change, Masseduction was performed in its entirety, in running order.
There was an intentional predictability to that approach, of course, but the songs were also accompanied by a brightly hued, cleverly constructed imagery — one St. Vincent in the flesh, and as many as three more on the video screen behind her! — that added flair to each song, whether it was the pharmaceutically addicted “Pills” or the depiction of all-consuming vanity in “Los Ageless.” There were also more than their share of tender moments, such as the gentle piano ballad “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and effectively soulful “Savior.”
Masseduction is one of the best albums of the year, and it’s also St. Vincent’s most unabashed pop record, one that gives up fighting against the pull of digital culture. “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” she sings in the title cut, not all that ambivalent about being hooked on 24/7 media overstimulation. And at the Factory, the boldness of the song’s hooks worked in her favor, as the sing- and clap-along rhythms and chorus invited the adoring crowd to participate in a communal experience, so that the star of the show didn’t seem so entirely alone on stage anymore.