Brixton Academy – 17th October
The curtain opens. Annie Clark stands before us, alone and imperious, wearing latex thigh-high boots, a pink bodysuit and armbands. There is no band to support her. Just a backing track plays as she launches into ‘Marry Me’, lit by a single spotlight. A black curtain obscures most of the stage
Tonight’s avant-garde show is an art performance piece in a few acts. Preceded by her own film, the darkly twisted The Birthday Party, it’s provocative, funny, tongue-in-cheek and takes the themes that weave through Masseduction – relationships, gender, being female and being gazed upon, power, sexuality – and fashions them into a creative and daring live show. A show full of garish colours and provocatively, bold imagery. A show that takes chances and engages all the senses at once to make it one of the most arresting shows you’ll see this year.
Not that everyone agrees. Scanning the crowd during her set, some reactions seemed muted at best, while others stare at the stage, baffled, trying to work out what is going on. On social media after the show fans accuse Annie of ‘disrespecting’ her fans; that with no backing band this was mere karaoke.
Yet what do we think we deserve from a gig? You pay your money and what can you expect in return?
Annie has always been preoccupied by the blurred, fuzzy line that separates authenticity from artifice. This is a hyperrealistic show, one which ties all her ideas together. It’s intense, just her, perhaps more emotionally distant than what has gone before, but just as beguiling. You can’t take your eyes off her – the visuals, the theatrics. Everything is meticulously planned out, even down to the stage hands wearing balaclavas.
As the curtain slowly pulls back a story develops. During the first half old songs are reworked to fit with her new sound – that is more pulsating, more electronic, giddier. They sound fresher. During a warped version of ‘Cruel’ she wigs out on a neon pink guitar. ‘Digital Witness’ feels like disco and ‘Cheerleader’ sees the spotlight flash as she shreds like no other. Yet there’s still vulnerability here: during ‘Strange Mercy’ she lies on the floor in the foetal position as she sings in front of a backdrop featuring a gaping yawn (or is that a scream?), smeared in red lipstick. Yet the mouths of the audience remain as wide open in bewilderment as the display behind her.
Other more considered criticisms say that it was emotionally lacking, the connection between the crowd and Annie not there. She barely says anything to the crowd in between songs. People leave. Yet her isolation just seems to draw you in even more. It creates a sense of intimacy, the connection between a solitary figure and 5,000 people a magnetic one.
After ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Birth In Reverse’ merge into each other she leaves the stage. There’s an interval, because of course there is. For the second act she plays new album Masseduction in full. Arty, surreal videos play behind her. For the title track a telephone made out of cake is smashed. On ‘Los Ageless’ a photocopier chews up the word “NO” and some legs stick out of a TV. There are a number of references to the objectification of female bodies. And when it ends on ‘Smoking Section’, also perhaps the highlight of the album, it feels like you’re completely in her world.
This is total art, an installation that we’re in. And, if we all accept this is art, then the only thing we can really expect is that the artist offers something unique – something that surprises you and takes you out of yourself. If we went to shows knowing exactly what was going to happen what would be the point in even turning up? It’s the excitement and the very fact that anything could happen that make them so thrilling.
Like Bowie, or the obvious comparison of David Byrne, before her, Annie is one of the smartest, funniest, artists we have. The show was in equal parts fun, unexpected and challenging. And that’s what we should want. The fact is that we can’t really demand anything – with the pointless encores and saving the best songs for last there’s a standard, tried and tested structure in place. But this is art and the shock of the new is what makes the really great gigs so special. Tonight we have it – a bold, provocative show, one that just further seems to highlight that Annie Clark is not the pop star we deserve, but tonight’s performance shows us she’s the one we need.
Photos by Anita McAndrew.