MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Hang On Me,” “Pills,” “Sugarboy,” “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” “Savior,” “New York,” “Young Lover”
Who is Annie Clark? Oklahoman-turned-Texan, Berklee drop-out, former guitarist for Sufjan Stevens, as well as the Polyphonic Spree. Nowadays? Grammy winner, guitar designer, Hollywood director, Record Store Day ambassador, Tiffany & Co. campaign face. According to her records: frizzy-haired, doe-eyed idealist, straight-faced actress, heart-broken neurotic, near-future cult leader. One time, she orchestrated an entire album in GarageBand by watching Disney movies on mute (ACTOR); another time, she stripped naked in the middle of a deserted ranch and encountered an unfriendly visitor (“Rattlesnake”), but then there was that other time she sandwiched a guitar-scraping freakout song (“Your Lips Are Red”) between cheeky waltzes and piano ballads. I am of the belief that she is of another world, perhaps one similar to the same place that bred new age pop weirdos like Prince and Bowie.
Between interviews where she references Marcel Proust or Alejandro Jodorowsky, saying “his shit bangs” when describing Stravinsky, I’ve found that her precociousness and wit are often so enchanting that, strategically, the audience is left with only the conceptual musician of St. Vincent, while the human identity of Annie Clark is up to the imaginations of those who invest in deeply analyzing her music. Even after touring LOVE THIS GIANT, collaborator David Byrne claimed to not to know her any more than when they started working together. In response to a question regarding her sexuality, Clark responded, “I don’t have anything to hide, but I’d rather the emphasis be on the music.” Understandably, there should be more interesting things to ask a female musician than what sexual organs she prefers, but even St. Vincent’s output is known for being coded in literary references and poetics. Although—in both the content of her music and in her public image—she has never made a point of remaining as aggressively private as say, TRILOGY-era The Weeknd, it was nonetheless both exciting and worrying for me when she began to grow in popularity following a Grammy win for Best Alternative Music Album and a highly publicized relationship with supermodel Cara Delevigne. How would those spotlights impact her work? Her integrity? I’m not one to fear my favorite artists becoming mainstream, or even to find out that they may in fact be an asshole. However, I do become concerned for the unknown demands made by record labels, producers, and fans, who all have the ability to cripple ingenuity and water down the essential characteristics of an artist’s individuality—in the shallowest of words, I feared for St. Vincent to sell out.
Likewise, in an exceptionally cartoony political landscape, the easy way out of artmaking is through tired concept albums that, with privilege, wag their finger at materialism and hive minds, or languidly call out kumbayas. Good—nay, great, satire should work like propaganda: It has to make you feel. St. Vincent began her latest marketing strategy with parodic interview videos in which she sarcastically responded to boring, though typical, questions about her new album, such as “What is it like being a woman in music?” I watched it all with apprehension rooted in the recent trauma of Arcade Fire’s colorless EVERYTHING NOW campaign, a satirical “global media and e-commerce platform” that blandly suggested themes of perpetual consumerism by using their fake Twitter to interact with, for example, KFC’s online presence. So, when St. Vincent announced MASSEDUCTION via a Facebook Live “press release” behind a hot pink podium, I shuttered in trepidation that this new album would fall into the trash bin amongst many recent lukewarm political commentaries. We get it—politicians persuade with glitter, not with reason, I thought.
Much to my satisfaction, MASSEDUCTION isn’t actually satire at all. It has an agenda, but not of grand coup d’état nor allusions to Orwell. On the contrary, it is St. Vincent’s most personal, microcosmic, and vulnerable album yet. (And I wouldn’t say that just because the cover art is a photo of her ass.) Exploring power, sex, drugs, heartbreak, and death, the album is not far off thematically from the macabre she utilizes in her past work—darkness and lunacy performed under the guise of beauty and sweetness. But this time, it is more intimate and tangible than ever. Album opener “Hang On Me” buzzes behind church bells and Annie’s desperate slur: “I know you hate my hysterics / I promise this time it’s different / I won’t cry wolf in the kitchen / Just please, oh, please don’t hang up yet.” On brand, the track closes with some otherwise uplifting strings, but behind her voice, doom is in the forecast.
10 levels of pop deeper than anything from her self-titled, MASSEDUCTION shines in deceivingly radiant colors. Chirping through the chorus with the robotic cadence of a gum commercial (“Pills to wake, pills to sleep, / Pills, pills, pills every day of the week”), it is impossible not to get “Pills” stuck in your head. Then, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”-like glory, the song comes down from the high in a sizzling, glam rock outro, a tempting call to arms for “all you wasted, wretched, and scorned” to participate in pharmaceutical sedation, with the expense that “everyone you love will all go away.” The kink-ridden track “Savior” similarly slinks along a groovy bass line and industrial-sounding percussion that warps until an echoing, orgasmic refrain of “please.”
This very temptation—this seduction—that qualifies as the spine of the album is best articulated in the chorus of “Masseduction” (“I can’t turn off what turns me on”). With this album, St. Vincent explores the many manifestations of addiction in her life, whether it be through drugs (“Pills,” “Happy Birthday, Johnny”), power (“Masseduction,” “Sugarboy”), or most obviously, sex and love (“Hang On Me,” “Los Ageless,” “Savior,” “Fear the Future,” “Young Lover”). The irony in how personal the lyrics are lies in the fact that it’s her most extreme pop endeavor yet, a natural progression clearly starting from “Now, Now” (MARRY ME) and “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood” (ACTOR), to “Cruel” (STRANGE MERCY) and “Birth In Reverse” (ST. VINCENT). MASSEDUCTION’s severe pop appeal is exaggerated by production from Jack Antonoff. Quickly recognizable, Antonoff’s signature production style is rampant across this record—at some points, thrilling, and at others, swallowing the things that make St. Vincent’s music so rich. Tracks like “Los Ageless” and “Sugarboy” are heavily textured with thick drum programming, complemented by Annie’s gnarly guitar fuzz and organized chaos; the combination propels each song into its own futuristic snarl, the latter at hyperspeed, and the former at a biting drawl by comparison. But then, he Antonoff-s all over a song like “Fear the Future” and causes it to sound like a cheap Taylor Swift track. Luckily, St. Vincent’s characteristic grittiness saves “Young Lover,” a stadium-worthy (albeit still TSwifty-sounding) track about finding a lover overdosed in the bathroom. Building in hysteria, she chants, “We were in Paris, the Eiffel was shinin’ / All that I wanted was lyin’ on tiling / I heard the robins, I thought they were sirens, / Wake up, young lover, I thought you were dyin’.” At the end, frantic, guttural guitar throws her voice into a manic, high-pitched wail, higher than we’ve ever heard from her before—and goddammit, it’s awesome.
Quiet soliloquies juxtapose otherwise frenetic moments on the record, and despite the piano ballad ideas sounding semi-recycled from Lorde’s MELODRAMA (also produced by Antonoff), they are gilded with a gentle, unguarded charisma that must have been kept in hibernation since her 2007 debut. Possibly hinting at the “Johnny canon” (“Marry Me” from MARRY ME and “Prince Johnny” from ST. VINCENT), the most heartbreakingly song of MASSEDUCTION is easily “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” which modestly progresses through piano chords and hums with the sad nostalgia of a pedal steel guitar. She breaks the fourth wall: “But if they only knew the real version of me / Only you know the secrets, the swamp, and the fear / What happened to blood, our family? / Annie, how could you do this to me?” Short of death, as accounted in album closer “Smoking Section,” “Happy Birthday, Johnny” seems to be the only other description MASSEDUCTION can provide of letting go and moving past the hypnotism of seduction—or it is merely the tragic and guilt-ridden repercussion of those very indulgences.
I am compelled to believe that maybe the downward spirals of the world paralleled the downward spirals of Annie’s personal life, which would explain the aforementioned marketing strategy and the inspired topics of power and seduction. But I would be foolish to doubt that whatever way she translates that information musically would not be without honesty and authenticity, regardless of its mystery or esotericism. And, however comprehensible her identity or her work may be, it is nearly impossible to be disappointed by Annie’s dexterity as an artist, whether it be lyrically, instrumentally, emotionally, or even conceptually. MASSEDUCTION proves that St. Vincent is a fearless, critical powerhouse who defies any and all loyalties to that which would prevent her from making music that has something important to say, and what MASSEDUCTION says is loud and clear: St. Vincent is not just a concept, but a writhing, fallible human named Annie, too.