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In praise of... St Vincent

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Annie Clark is a superb guitarist

Annie Clark is a superb guitarist

Annie Clark is a superb guitarist

Anne Clarke's parents divorced when she was three years of age. There is a story in the New Yorker magazine that her father would recite passages from James Joyce's Ulysses and for Christmas, when she was ten, gave her a copy of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

All of which shows in the songs of the Oklahoma-born, Texas-raised singer who performs under the name St Vincent, inspired by the Saint Vincent's hospital in New York where the poet Dylan Thomas died in 1953.

She was once asked what love feels like.

"I used to think," she replied, "it was the manic dance of desire and need, of want and have, of possessed and dispossessed. I don't think that any more."

I first took an interest in St Vincent in 2012, when she said something about "the species of life that will see our sun die out will be as distantly related to us as an amoeba. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe…"

I immediately sought out her music.

The albums Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009) were a start but 2012's Strange Mercy was a revelation. It remains a revelation, especially now. On songs such as Surgeon, the shape-shifting artist (who has been called the female Bowie) sings, "Best, finest surgeon, Come cut me open", a line paraphrased from the diary of an actress who died at the age of 35 in August 1962.

"I was reading Marilyn Monroe's journals," St Vincent said, "She wrote down the sentence, 'Best, finest surgeon - Lee Strasberg, come cut me open.' I just thought that was brilliant and really strange. I definitely wanted this particular song to sound like someone was kind of in a Benzedrine and white wine coma - like a housewife's cocktail."

St Vincent wrote Strange Mercy in Seattle in late 2011 as a "loneliness experiment". (Haven't we all felt at some point that the Covid-19 lockdown was a sort of loneliness experiment... in a white wine coma?)

Then last week emerged St Vincent's new, and just as revelatory, acoustic version of New York for the Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) Virtual Gala.

Utterly sublime, and stripped down from the original, this sounds like a coronavirus concerto. On an acoustic guitar.

It is a stark but strangely moving masterpiece about a city in the grip of something truly horrendous.

In April 2018, when Lorde covered the song at the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn she achieved "peak ethereal cool girl" and "ascended to a new level of unobtainable cool by performing St Vincent's New York," wrote Jackson McHenry in Vulture.

When St Vincent performed it last week at the BAM Virtual Gala, she achieved something light years beyond ethereal cool.

You can feel the pain of a city hurting when she sings the words: "New York isn't New York without you, love". You can feel that and much more when she sings: "I have lost a hero, I have lost a friend".

The song is also nicely disorientating and uplifting from the alt-superwoman who said of her self-titled 2014 album: "I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral". New York is a melancholic, funeral-ish record you could party to at a birthday party. Everyone would cry… tears of joy.

The hymn-like simplicity of the delivery, accentuated by a simple guitar, gives the words a whole new heartwrenching meaning in the context of what has gone on in New York over the last two months and the lives, young and old, which have been lost.

The song (a piano ballad from her fifth studio album, Masseduction, released in the summer of 2017) was originally written either about the end of her relationship with Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein (whom St Vincent dated in 2012) or model Cara Delevingne (whom she dated between 2014 and 2016) and/or the death of David Bowie (who died in 2016).

It is now transformed into a beautiful ode to the city that never sleeps and refuses to die.

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