Premature Evaluation: St. Vincent MASSEDUCTION
MASSEDUCTION starts with a plane crash and ends with a suicide. The space between is occupied by day-glo demons that skulk in the shadows of Annie Clark’s songs and scare the shit out of her at every available opportunity. In several interviews, Clark has referred to this album — her fifth under the moniker St. Vincent, not counting her collaboration with David Byrne — as her most personal. “I told you more than I would tell my own mother,” she said to one journalist. This pull-quote is an essential coy St. Vincent-ism, a perfect distillation of Clark’s curatorial instinct, because really: How much do we tell our own mothers? A more revealing statement would be: “I told you more than I would tell my therapist.” Even so, “vulnerable” is not a word normally ascribed to Clark, and it certainly applies to the lyrics on this album. But is Clark confessional? Not really. MASSEDUCTION is sexy and adventurous and impossibly sad, made up of songs that aim to make you feel like you are caught in the crosshairs of the most volatile romance of your life. It is as dangerous as it is thrilling.
Loneliness, or the threat of one day being alone, is paramount on MASSEDUCTION. To set the scene: The album’s opening track finds Clark’s inebriated narrator calling a soon-to-be-ex-lover in the middle of the night. She then proceeds to compare their deteriorating relationship to a plane splitting the atmosphere and hurtling toward Earth. “Hang On Me” is a sparsely arranged song that situates listeners in a place familiar to anyone who has ever watched the scaffolding of their world collapse in slow-motion; it’s the pleading promise that this time, if only you’ll take me back, things will be different. “I cannot stop the taxi cab from crashing,” Clark sings, using another metaphor for certain, circumstantial destruction. “And only lovers will survive.”
Those metaphorical crashes paint St. Vincent as a tragic, celebrated figure, a Buddy Holly or Aaliyah or Patsy Cline for 2017. At this point, Annie Clark is truly a rock god — she is among the greatest American guitarists we have. She stood in for Kurt Cobain at the Rock Hall induction ceremony, she has her own line of guitars, she has made an album with David Byrne. As Clark’s life has grown increasingly public — the celebrity girlfriends, the Tiffany & Co. modeling campaign, the appearances at NYFW — Clark has grown into a larger-than-life persona, a figure that makes headlines when she goes out to buy dog food with Kristen Stewart. That, accompanied by the fact that Clark started integrating elaborate costume and dance into her live performances during the St. Vincent tour, further proved that she is a titan both on stage and off. We got to know that titan well on her 2014 self-titled release, but on MASSEDUCTION, Clark gives herself space to be a visionary and a celebrity as well as a regular person. So if she does go down in that airplane, or if ever the artifice and the curated personality of St. Vincent were to fall away: What will she leave behind?
If we’re to draw from Clark’s narrators on MASSEDUCTION the answer is: Not much. There’s an existential anxiety to this album that is palpable from that plane crash on — a self-doubt and -deprecation not easily heard in Clark’s earlier work. But while Clark’s lyrics betray her personal turmoil, the production on the album belies the pain beneath. “Pills” — featuring Cara Delevigne (aka “Kid Monkey”), Jenny Lewis, and Kamasi Washington — follows “Hang On Me” like an adrenaline shot straight to the heart; it’s a manic, absurd examination of our increasingly medicated society. But rather than infect her commentary with sarcasm, “Pills” is based on Clark’s own experience with medication she started taking while touring her self-titled album and feeling the distinct misery that comes with living your entire life on the road. “I spent a year suspended in air,” she yelps, before a laundry list of anxieties spill out of her, some of them non-sequiturs, others more telling. It’s a circus of a song that’s closest relative might very well be the cast of Rent singing “La Vie Boheme,” which is to say that it’s theatrical. Adding to that theatricality is an addicting infomercial-ditty of a chorus: “Pills to eat, pills to sleep, pills, pills, pills, every day of the week.”
MASSEDUCTION operates in extremes; there are overwhelming, borderline-hyperactive songs about sex and drugs and good times gone bad and then there are the sad, minimalist ones. There isn’t a single track that will leave you wondering what to feel after hearing it. This is, of course, due in part to the fact that Clark elected to move away from the producer of Strange Mercy and St Vincent, John Congleton, and work instead with Jack Antonoff, the man of the hour who — try as you may — you’re not escaping anytime soon. (It’s worth noting that Congleton did assist on a few songs, among them “Fear The Future,” “Pills,” and “Savior.”) Say what you will about Antonoff and his earnest-to-a-fault band Bleachers, the guy has proven himself to be very good at working with women who have a strong point of view, who will always sound like themselves regardless of who’s assisting them. Antonoff has built his career on being a friend; he’s the kind of man people feel OK sharing their feelings with, and his greatest currency is that sentimental Broadway piano he can’t get enough of. It sounds genuine, and for an artist like St. Vincent who reinvents herself every album cycle, who is often considered shrewd and unknowable, genuine is not the obvious choice. But it works on MASSEDUCTION, and Clark gives a bit more of herself as an individual without relinquishing the persona she’s built.
Antonoff isn’t all over MASSEDUCTION the same way he’s not all over Lorde’s Melodrama. His influence mostly appears in the songs that are most tender, like the lead single “New York,” which is both an ode to an ex-lover as well as a farewell to all of our rock heroes who keep dying. Then there’s “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” another song about loss and the spiritual companion to “New York” that finds Clark addressing someone from her past, the same Johnny who appeared as “Prince Johnny” on the self-titled album. Johnny’s the type of character to show up unannounced on your doorstep and throw your life into chaos the minute they step through the threshold. He’s a bit tragic, a person whose current predicament Clark blames herself for. “What happened to our blood? Our family? Annie, how could you do this to me?” he asks after a series of missteps leave him destitute. This is the only song on MASSEDUCTION that directly alludes to Clark’s personal success, her fame, in a way that’s almost derogatory. It is the saddest song on the album.
Celebrity and the isolation it breeds is central to MASSEDUCTION, and Clark revolts against her status as a “woman in rock” — a term she critiques in Carrie Brownstein-scripted promo videos for the album — in two ways: 1) she puts the guitar down and lets those piano ballads unfurl; 2) she owns the persona and pushes it to the extreme. Throughout the album, Clark takes on the role of the horny, objectifying, rock ‘n’ roll icon and puts her sexuality on full display. The album art, which features a woman’s ass in a leopard thong, says it all: Gone is the demure Annie Clark of Marry Me and Actor, gone is the icy, alien space queen we tried to get to know on the self-titled album. The St. Vincent of MASSEDUCTION is more invested in earthly pursuits and pleasures of the flesh, a sign that she is probably pretty fucking tired of journalists asking her about who she prefers to go to bed with. The gender fluidity Clark upheld in an old interview is fodder for the Bowie-indebted cries of “boys!” and “girls!” on “Sugarboy,” which follows the pulsing title track that features a chorus that’s delivered almost like an impassioned moan: “MASSEDUCTION/ I can’t turn off what turns me on/ I hold you like a weapon/ MASS DESTRUCTION/ Don’t turn off what turns me on.” Clark plays with that overtly sexual figure throughout, honoring a long line of female pop icons who didn’t shy from the subject decades before her. A line like, “Teenage Christian virgins/ Holding out their tongues,” recalls a “Like A Prayer”-era Madonna. Tongues out for what? The body of Christ? Not likely, unless “Paranoid secretions/ Falling on basement rugs” could be anything but a perverse form of transubstantiation.
But the lust-fueled encounters Clark indulges in are almost always subsumed with a darkness. “How can anyone have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?” she asks on “Los Ageless.” Meanwhile, on the kinky, provocative “Savior,” Clark dons various cheap roleplay outfits — a slutty nun, a bad cop, a punishing teacher — at the behest of a lover. These unhinged personalities she tries on are ones we know well; we see them in pornos and at bachelorette parties and on Halloween. There’s an inherent sadness to these archetypes that exist in our collective fantasies, in our bedrooms, and nowhere else.
All that’s fun and sexy about MASSEDUCTION comes to a halt with “Young Lover,” in which a near-dead body is found bleeding out in a bathtub. It segues into an instrumental track, the only one on the album, called “Dancing With A Ghost.” Eerie, layered synths introduce the melody to the atmospheric, string-assisted “Slow Disco” that returns listeners to earlier themes. “Slip my hand, from your hand/ Leave you dancing with a ghost,” Clark sings over and over until her voice pitch-shifts and descends to something that sounds sad and transcendent at the same time. “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?” Clark ends her kaleidoscopic romp through this dizzying world with “Smoking Section,” in which she plays the part of the desperate lover with nothing left to lose, a person so far gone they don’t mind the idea of dying right there and then on the spot in the name of love. “And sometimes I go to the edge of my roof/ And I think I’ll jump just to punish you/ And If I should float on the taxis below/ No one will notice/ No one will know.” Everyone has felt that particular type of self-destructive spite for a lover before. More importantly: everyone worries that they will die and leave little to no legacy behind.
There is one song on MASSEDUCTION that stands apart from the rest. “Fear The Future” is massive, made to be anthemic — it’s the kind of song that you will imagine thousands of fans screaming along to, and it is telling that St. Vincent’s upcoming tour is named for it. On “Fear The Future,” Clark begs some overlord to give her an answer to… well, it’s not entirely clear. What’s impactful about this song isn’t the overpowering, apocalyptic production on the thing so much as hearing Clark use the word “fear” so brazenly.
Clark didn’t have to make an album like this. She could have continued on in the vein of St. Vincent, writing fables that spoke to some greater, abstract truth about society, and we would still be praising her. But unlike St. Vincent, the themes on MASSEDUCTION don’t beg for some greater thematic explanation. It stands on its own, and it introduces us to a more compelling iteration of St. Vincent than we’ve ever been presented with. You won’t feel the need to read an interview with Clark to discern what (or who) certain songs are about, there aren’t any riddles that defy explanation and require some level of annotation to hit you where it counts. Clark went into the studio and instead of trying to say Something Of Great Importance, she looked inward and wrote songs that are anxious and hedonistic and heartbreaking and provocative and relatable and many more descriptors than any one review can contain. The result is her most cohesive and accessible album to date. For a long time, St. Vincent and Annie Clark were used interchangeably, though there was always clear distinction between art and artist. On MASSEDUCTION, Clark conflates the two and becomes her own muse.
MASSEDUCTION is out 10/13 via Loma Vista. Pre-order it here.