Review Summary: An audacious and unorthodox release even for Annie Clark, MASSEDUCTION marks St. Vincent's least consistent but most affecting album yet.Uncomfortable
. That seems to be the theme surrounding St. Vincent’s fifth LP: this inharmonious juxtaposition of very worldly, sexually-charged electronic pop and more thoughtful, celestially intimate musings. The cover art, for starters, is a bit jarring to the unsuspecting eye – but that’s nothing compared to the music. On an album that sees Annie Clark record a song about fetishes with her aunt and uncle, nothing feels off limits. It’s a release that seems like it is designed to take you outside of your comfort zone, and if that alone is the goal, then it succeeds without hesitation.
Much has been made of St. Vincent’s image and public persona; this trend-defying figure in music, fashion, and gender identity who has resultantly, and somewhat expectedly, garnered titles such as “the female Bowie.” One wonders if it is a case of Clark naturally following her ambition or more of a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point, as everything she says, wears, and creates emanates from a very hip, retro-eighties influenced idea base. In that regard, Clark’s new album isn’t very different stylistically from 2014’s St. Vincent
, picking up right where ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ left off. ‘Hang On Me’ even washes in from a similar time signature, unassumingly arriving as if it were a seamless continuation over a three year time portal. Its opening remark, “you and me, we’re not meant for this world”, end up being the truest sentiment on MASSEDUCTION
– the thesis statement for this album’s overarching eccentricity.
…And then ‘Pills’ hits. This record’s oddness has already been starkly outlined, and the reason is primarily due to tracks like this. It plays like a commercial jingle, features almost no musically redeeming qualities, and exposes to the light of day lyrics such as “pills to fuck, pills to eat / pills, pills, pills down the kitchen sink” and “pills, pills, pills for the family.” The penned words actually seemed to carry more weight when they were perceivably a sarcasm-riddled commentary about our reliance on medication for just about everything – a notion that was however dispelled by Annie in a recent interview where she stated: “The song wasn’t intended as this moral indictment of the state of the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. I don’t think it works to write finger-wagging songs, because it’s condescending to the audience and just a bummer to listen to.” Admirable, but it makes the song infinitely less interesting once you are forced to concede that it’s merely a surface level ditty about popping pills to help you sleep.
The remainder of MASSEDUCTION
tends to fall into one of two vastly different camps. The first – and the majority shareholder – is her upbeat brand of electro-pop. The title track lands within bounds here, featuring a disappointingly repetitive and almost Muse-ish chorus atop the pitter-pat of computerized drumming and synthesized vocals. There’s more where that came from too, which holds a good deal of MASSEDUCTION
back from its full potential and leads to speculation as to why certain moments weren’t left off the final cut altogether. ‘Sugarboy’ is a minor improvement, boasting a swift electronic beat current that one could envision playing to rapidly flashing lights and lasers at a night club or rave. The random bouts of “boys! girls!” feel clichéd and cheapen Clark’s efforts, but the memorable chorus and “disco solo” during the latter half more than apologize for it. Nothing on this record tops the single ‘Los Ageless’, though, a massive art-pop tune akin to ‘Digital Witness’ that combines the best elements of Clark’s electronically-infused songwriting with the most memorable chorus that MASSEDUCTION
offers – this larger than life “how could anybody have you and lose you / and not lose their minds, too?” that also seems to dig at a more emotionally proximal place in Annie’s life.
’s more colorful, upbeat, and risky pop is largely hit-or-miss, Annie’s slower, more artful ballads have a near perfect success rate here. ‘New York’ and ‘Slow Disco’ are the most immediate ones that come to mind, with the former serving as the lead single and featuring the odd-fitting line “you’re the only motherfucker in the city who’d forgive me”, while the latter has an almost Ingrid Michaelson vibe to it and elegantly sways atop a heavy-hearted string section. Both moments are among the most beautiful and affecting in St. Vincent’s recent discography, but there is still one ballad here that places all of the others squarely on the backburner. ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’ is a stunningly personal ode with heartbreaking implications, seemingly alluding to an old friend who fell on hard times and now lives on the street: “since we last spoke, you live on the street / yeah, I wouldn't believe all the shit that you seen / happy New Year, Johnny, is it 23? / happy New Year, Johnny, are the lights on the trees?” As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Johnny is (or was) a heroin addict, as the opening line alludes to Jim Carroll, a poet and musician who struggled with addiction and Annie writes “remember one Christmas I gave you Jim Carroll / intended it as a cautionary tale.” As the song closes out, Johnny accuses Annie of not helping him enough (presumably financially), as Annie chronicles “acccused me of actin' like all royalty / always for show, no true charity / you saw me on magazines and TV” before wrapping things up with the haunting line “Annie, how could you do this to me?” All of this is recounted in two minutes and fifty eight seconds; perhaps the most depressing short stretch of MASSEDUCTION
that is equally as uncomfortable as, say, the ode-to-kink ‘Savior’, but in a totally different and far more profound way.
By the end of MASSEDUCTION
it’s easy to feel a little bit disoriented. There’s a wide spectrum of aesthetics and emotions swirling within its confines, and the dichotomy between the two faces of Annie Clark (plastic, sexualized / poignant, sincere) is dizzying. This record is a lot of things, but none of them are consistent. It’s a seesaw, always shifting and changing. Compared to previous outings, this may be the most bold and unabashed offering of Annie Clark’s career. It certainly isn’t her best
collection of songs outright, but there’s a certain amount of style points that she garners for remaining so committed to bucking the expectations set by her audience and industry. It takes some time to get past the initial discomfort that comes with MASSEDUCTION
’s brazen and divergent antics, but at the end of the road there’s quite a good record worth delving into. You might end up being surprised by how much of yourself you see in St. Vincent’s “weirdest” offering to date.