Review Summary: You aren’t stripped of what once was at your disposal; you just don’t have all the weight to keep you from breathing.
Annie Clark, oh, Annie Clark.
I must admit, I was among those not enthralled by her latest record, Masseduction
. It had all the components of a proper, dirty-minded, but pure-hearted St. Vincent record, but it had less of an appeal, what with its song-writing and overly sugary musical arrangement being mostly not up to par with the rest of her discography. And so it came and so it went, I’ve forgotten about it and went back to spinning into holes my colourful vinyl editions of her previous albums. But as if hearing my distress and disappointment, she quickly came to aid (or so the fan fiction I dreamt up in my head certainly says) and first dropped a hot and steamy remix of the more, shall we say, questionable cuts of Masseduction
, “Slow Disco” (the remix then being “Fast Slow Disco”). It was a much more lavish version of the track, whose original rendition was lacking that sincerity and personality Annie is a master of. It made me move my hips, while still indulging in rather fluffy and overwhelmingly downhearted atmosphere. And it occurred to me (or rather a flash of hope seeped through the cracks in my brain) that perhaps she could redo a whole album like that to sound absolutely unlike its initial intended versions.
And as the pop goddess that she is (suck it, Beyonce and Lady Gaga, here’s a nice Christian lady to show you who’s the boss), she heard my calls yet again. And she presented unto us a lush, tender and classy rearranged, rerecorded, remastered and reimagined acoustic melancholy-ridden snuggle-up-n-cuddle-up atmospheric blanket-wrapped-after-a-hot-bath-with-bubbles wintery antidote to Masseduction
, its younger, more thoughtful and empathetic sibling MassEducation
, which –I have to admit – is what I thought that prior album was called at first.
Instead of “Hang On Me”, this album kicks off with the aforementioned “Slow Disco”, but even slower and more barebones kind. Nothing but piano, nothing but Annie. She went so far from her usual eccentric, over-the-top persona, this might as well be someone else’s cover. But it sounds more genuine and heartfelt than the original version (then again, anything does). And the instant those “Don’t it be a slow dance to death?” chants start, you know you’re in love. Then comes “Savior” and if anything can fuel you with scepticism about this album, this song might be it. It is somewhat awkward to hear a song that was previously already a skeletal disco throw-back suddenly attempted as an acoustic. Nevertheless, all scepticism is laid aback as soon as the latter third of the song kicks in in all of its hypnotic whimsy, feeling like more of her Actor
-or Strange Mercy
-era peculiarities than anything she’s done since those days. It’s just a shame it is only a part of the song.
The first two songs had their fair share of problems, but that’s what happens when a song’s natural and intended arrangement is suddenly not in play. Nevertheless, they both found a way to redeem themselves greatly, which cannot be about the title track. If “Savior” felt awkward, but built up towards a grand exit, “Masseduction” did not. It just kept on railing its ill-performed oddity, strangely hauling away its collision of low-toned piano chords and a melody that did not fit it at all. Praise be the Lady, “Sugarboy” not only is the first all-throughout majestic and charming song, it also continues that meditative dreamlike aesthetic of “Savior”. The piano is hammering away, Annie’s voice intensifying and the melody fits all too perfectly to such a straightforward, but still emotionally charged song. “Fear the Future” is another such whimsical cut, but this time Annie goes all out vocally, and let’s just say that while her voice is rich on range and certainly pretty, it fractures a little upon those long and high notes.
I suppose that that is one of the cruxes of this record’s problem, other than the occasionally unfitting transformation of pop tunes into singer-songwriter folksiness. As angelic and gentle as her voice is, the stripped-down, acoustic rendering of her latest album doesn't necessarily sit well with it. Her voice is audibly cracking, imperfect and almost sounds undertrained. Indeed, that presents us with a great look at Annie, more vulnerable than ever before, certainly showing her most human and down-to-earth side, but it also can get a teeny tiny bit grating and –dare I say – obnoxious. It might be just that I am way too used to them being surrounded by Annie’s usual either robotic or Disney-like musicianship, so this purity and clarity feels one shade too unusual and to such an extent that even after a gagful of repeated listens, it did not grow.
“Smoking Section” is a pure ecstatic beauty, albeit still with that potentially distressing high-note every now and then, while “Los Ageless” again doesn’t come off like the best song to remake into an acoustic version, as it felt slightly meat and potatoes even as a fully realised pop track. More of tenderness and surprising Kate Bush-likeness on “New York” and “Young Lover” and we get to one of this album’s biggest questions: “Happy Birthday, Johnny”, a song already piano-based and based all around its absolute minimalism. How will a reimagination-album of this sort deal with a song like that? Well, it didn’t really change anything, other than a minute or so of added piano tear-jerker. But somehow it still wasn’t as tear-jerking as the finish to “Pills”, already by far the best pop extravaganza-to-sorrowful acoustics transition on the record, which just exploded perhaps even harder than its Masseduction
predecessor. It is thrilling, body-moving and euphoric with all the tenacity of a raging beatdown. As calm and in control as an unmanned Gatling with its trigger smashed down. And all to be beautifully topped off with a caress of subtlety in Hang On Me”.
By choosing to give up all the expensive arrangement that shielded her previously, Annie Clark both revealed her biggest strengths, but also biggest weaknesses. But at the end of the day, the weaknesses were only a fraction of the whole and were served with all the intent of being imperfect, unveiling Annie’s innocence and vulnerability. Because what’s the point of trying to sound genuine, when you mask it all with make-up.