Review Summary: head in the clouds; hand in the cookie jar
Annie Clark has split herself in two.
catches the songstress displaying some lovely cognitive dissonance; here, she imbues her relentless electro-pop anthems with scathing guitar lines, and she bites into her piano ballads with meticulously filed teeth. The dichotomy is inspiring but entirely difficult to come to terms with; mindblowingly good ideas play tug-of-war with those that are ill-conceived and grating. But underneath that argument -- about whether this music is bad or good, about whether it’s very moving or only moving insofar as you have to get up to turn that shit off -- there are the two warring sides of Annie Clark: The Balladeer (appraised here by yours truly), and The Pop Rocker (appraised by Ramon).
Of the former: gold may well have been struck.
Of the latter: the jury is still out.
The Pop Rocker Stands In The Closed Cubicle:
Annie Clark isn’t disingenuous. The bipolar tendencies that burst out of MASSEDUCTION
feel like both sides of the same coin, and while she might be storing all the subtle introspection in her head, the rambunctious pop anthems stored in her tail end are just as telling of personal ongoings. It’d seem there are just times where she doesn’t want to say everything, even if the full picture grips her visage. While Hang On Me
spares no time promoting weariness, it is in the overly polished anthems where her faltering is most evident. Pills
. Los Angeles
. These tracks make up a life-worn, broken anecdote that revels in the bittersweet on the surface. Sultry confidence may have been the goal of these synth-fueled bangers but even in their self-awareness, the hesitant voice that directs the quieter moments struggles to hold its own within a more explosive setting.
There is only really one pop piece that feels at all at home on this album, even if every track in the listing is in one way or another tied to Clark’s history. This considered, Pills
doesn’t convey its ideas subtly. Garish production laced with childish synths and a groove-heavy driving beat do very little to cover a painfully cyclical lyrical stance. The melody is sweet, but Cara Delevigne’s buoyant delivery in the chorus is alarmingly vitriolic given the tone of the album as she croons ”Pills to fuck, pills to eat / Pills, pills, pills down the kitchen sink”
. Not only does the catching flair of the track have immediate replayability, but when the song abruptly transitions into an aggressive torrent of distorted instruments and wretched vocals, it feels purposeful. As if Clark was playing out the bleak contrast of a rocker’s life in a visceral real-time.
...And then she makes certain we feel the aftermath, armed with but a piano and a box of memoirs.
The Balladeer Sits At The Open Piano:
Happy Birthday, Johnny
(and it’s place on the record) works because it definitely doesn’t. It’s the token mawkish piano ballad, reaching back into the past in the most reactionary of ways. It feels like a response to Los Ageless
, which provides a rather unobstructed angle of Annie as she tears her hair out and scrapes her brain out from the glitzy gutters of LA. But Johnny
is so, so far away from that reality; instead, it is daydreaming as therapy, the composed side commiserating with the fraying sided. And that’s what makes this album so self-defeatist: It’s only intriguing when it has to pick up its own pieces. The beautiful moments are arrived by second guesses, and the dynamic between the introspective side of St. Vincent and the ‘fun’ side is made all the more intriguing by the tedium we have to wade through in the process. It’s a paradox wrapped up in a not-so-neat little pop bow.
Happy Birthday, Johnny
is too soon after disaster to imbue its lyrics and structure with any kind of levity, but New York
-- the second pure piano ballad on the record -- is distant enough from the chaos that it is able to find the humour in yearning. In a record defined by dichotomies and conflicting aesthetics, it’s fitting that this song is as bittersweet as it is. There is hope represented by the subtle pulse of the kick-drum (noticeably absent in Johnny
) and a wry grin in the of the ”only motherfucker…”
line. These ballads actually make it clear that the two sides to Clark aren’t warring -- as I said prior. It seems obvious to me now that The Balladeer looks upon The Pop Rocker with a kind of resigned acceptance, like a parent picking up a delinquent teen from overnight lock-up. It’s an “I love you but you make life so hard” sigh occurring as mistakes are made and cleaned up and made again.
The Pop Rocker Stands By The Closed Suitcase:
But The Pop Rocker seems to care little for The Balladeer’s approval, and these jagged explorations of youth feel like too little, too late. It only took until the second track for Clark to make clear the impact of a glamourous music career on the shoulders of a single individual. And yet these four-on-the-floor singles keep on cropping up. It’s almost too snap-happy; Young Lover
almost feels like Masseduction
with a different filter, and vice versa. The same, anxious teen stares into the lens as a library fills up with self-portraits sorted by varying degrees of post-editing. The honesty of Clark’s persona doesn’t permit any serious kind of selfishness, even with these sometimes obnoxious filler beats. It does mean that the impact of her story is diminished, as vapid expressions of chic living gormlessly eschew subtlety in favour of trendsetting.
This is not to say the goals of St. Vincent’s latest effort are to publicize a niche. If anything, this album seems to be directed more at Annie Clark than anyone else. A re-telling of events maybe, but also valuable insight from an older and wiser self. Smoke and mirrors might be essential to her story, and it isn’t hard to see how a person as impressionably open as Clark could be swayed to include her memoirs of excess and stardom in such a reflective outing. The metallic pulses and arcade kits are just as much a product of their creator as the sobering outcries that lead everything else. The suffocating noise and the simplicity of silence. It isn’t a tale told with elegance but there is beauty to be seen in its faithfulness.
The Balladeer Sits By The Open Window:
It’s a beauty that should feel incongruent. I mean, it’s genuinely strange how well Slow Disco
slots into the context of this record -- one outlined by a thousand dying neon lights and an inordinate amount of spit-shining. It rises and deflates on a crest of patient strings, and it sees Annie Clark let her hair down against a light breeze after spending an album skipping across exposed wires. There are, obviously, brief moments of reprieve across MASSEDUCTION
, but they’re mere gulps of air for a convulsing, writhing body that -- while still lovely -- fail to assuage the onset of claustrophobia imparted by the likes of Sugarboy
So it’s almost shocking when Slow Disco
emerges from the plumes of smoke conjured by Dancing With A Ghost
-- the only interlude on the record. In that meagre period of time, Clark lets us in on the smallest of grand statements; the song being a tonic for a year’s worth of straight gin. Taken at face value, “Don’t leave me to slow dance to death”
may seem like the world’s biggest anti-climax, but instead it’s the narrative circling back on itself and introducing its themes at the end; think Fight Club for depressed housewives. By Smoking Section
, the record is recontextualised as an optimistic experience, with the refrain: ”it’s not the end”
taking a ballad about suicide by the hand, and walking it through a revolving door.
With it’s pristine veneer and an ostensible lust for it’s name on a billboard, MASSEDUCTION
perhaps sees Annie Clark at her most ruminative -- her eyes boring deeper into the mirror than ever before. By unspooling her own DNA into those two discernible strands, the woman who once carved out a space for danceable guitar jams is able to deconstruct her own processes, both as a musician and as a person. So, yes, this is the St. Vincent album that Annie Clark wrote for herself, which is great, because it means that at least someone
can glean profundity and meaning from Sugarboy