St. Vincent - "MASSEDUCTION" Album Review
Annie Clark’s ascent to pop stardom was not initially predicted, but it’s somehow unsurprising where she finds herself now. It’s been an interesting decade for the former Polyphonic Spree member; her excellent 2007 debut Marry Me went mostly unnoticed by the masses. Her vintage Disney influenced follow-up, Actor was critically acclaimed and her breakthrough album, Strange Mercy, put her on the map. Her last record, the eponymous St. Vincent earned acclaim much like all her previous work in addition to a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. At this point, the world was aware of Annie Clark. She was slowly moving into a pop realm that blended in her own sound.
The opener, “Hang on Me” is just that; it begins this sorrowful journey with familiarly layered St. Vincent lyrics like: “I cannot stop the taxicabs from crashin’/And only lovers will survive” while catchy synths and wistful strings play softly in the background, lamenting a failed relationship. “Sugarboy” is a banger, rapidly and furiously barraging the listener with synths and guitars, before the end of this track plunges into an ocean of distortion. Annie seems to be directing this message directly to the audience as its chorus lets the listener know that she is more like them than they think. “Sugarboy” leads into “Los Ageless”, using the same riff on the former’s verses that end up becoming the latter’s melody in a magnificent callback.
The cynical “Los Ageless” comments on the fabrication and aloofness associated with Los Angeles (“The lost sages hang out by the bar/Burned the pages of unwritten memoirs”). Catchy synths, guitars, and lyrics make this track a sensible pick as the second single from MASSEDUCTION. The same cannot be said for its lead single “New York”. The piano-laden ballad was a puzzling pick and it’s one of the only lackluster cuts on this album. St. Vincent sings beautifully on it and there are some marvelous strings that accompany the chorus on the back half of the track, but when it all comes together, it becomes an uninteresting instrumental.
On “Pills”, the hook of which sounds like an advertisement jingle from the 1960s, isn’t specifically tackling the pharma industry as this track is more personal to Annie. She goes into a year of her tour life and shares personal bouts with pill addiction and mimics the highs of pill-popping on the first half of the track, where frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator, Sounwave, provides lively drums under some high-spirited horns, St. Vincent’s frenetic electric guitar and Cara Delevigne’s vocals on the addictive hook. Everything slows down when saxophonist Kamasi Washington performs a sultry and mournful outro.
Savior”, a highlight of this album has Annie go kinky on the surface with BDSM-filled lyrics in which she wears various outfits - a nurse, a teacher, a nun, and a policewoman - funnily enough, all saviors who generally keep people on their “best behavior”. Annie seems to be having a bout with a lover about not only dominance and submission, but personal improvement, where she sings “Honey, I can’t be your savior/Love you to the grave and farther/Honey, I am not your martyr” but then she finally relents (“But then you say please”). The track itself is groovy with sleazy riffs and synths. The end of “Savior” contains a climatic electric guitar with Annie’s vocals reaching peak highs at the end, stressing the word “please”, as the power struggle shifts dramatically.
What makes St. Vincent’s persona and her music so appealing is the mystery shrouding her life and writing. “Happy Birthday, Johnny”, an extremely mournful ballad about estrangement continues the tale of John or Johnny that began in the title track of Marry Me and on “Prince Johnny” off her self-titled effort. This time around, Johnny is looking worse than when we last heard of him and because of that and other factors, the schism occurs. It’s profoundly sad as this is something that happens all the time; people lose touch, people eventually start walking different paths. No one knows who Johnny is, and Annie isn’t telling. Maybe it’s an old lover. Maybe it’s an old friend. Maybe, it’s a relative. Maybe these events didn’t happen at all. Maybe it’s better that way. Maybe it’s better when the discussion includes the words “perhaps” or “I think”. After all, the most compelling mysteries are the unsolved ones.
“Oh, what a bore to be so adored” she sings on the MASSEDUCTION title track, an incredibly catchy cut from earlier on the album. That’s the price to pay when reaching a certain status; once the modest, promising indie act, St. Vincent has become a stalwart in her field: the dying Rock genre and the Pop lane that she has merged into with seemingly little effort. The track is aggressive with a gruff-sounding guitar and builds on that and on honesty as Annie exclaims she “Can’t turn off what turns me on”.
The back end of MASSEDUCTION gets a lot darker, with cuts like “Young Lover” where someone is found in the bathtub unresponsive. Annie’s vocals keep rising to the point of hysterics as she begs her young lover to wake up from what is sure to be an eternal sleep. The album closer “Smoking Section” might the most interesting cut of them all, with Annie ruefully singing about the many ways her life can come to an end. It’s done very poetically in the first two verses, but the fourth is where it is filled with the most spite and self-disparagement of any St. Vincent record (“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”).
The buildup has led to this: the darkest, bleakest point of MASSEDUCTION. The final, harrowing moments of life. This is the end. And at the end, a sliver of hope permeates through the bleak; a chord change and St. Vincent’s own conscience breaks through: (“And then I think/What could be better than love, than love, than love?” The parting words of this album: (“It’s not the end”) end this sad journey with barely visible hope. But it’s still hope, and that’s always more powerful than the alternative.
St. Vincent explores sex, drugs, death, and power on MASSEDUCTION. It’s an album that tackles anxiety, depression, identity, addiction and the coping mechanisms to deal with those issues. As a result, St. Vincent delivers her most nuanced record, an album filled with the dealings of life, which can become quite complicated especially in its darker stages. There is less guitar here than her previous work, fewer strings and more synths in fact. As St. Vincent went deeper into her career, her discography became more accessible. And the more accessible she became her foray into pop would be nothing less than eventual.
MASSEDUCTION is not as conceptually driven as her self-titled or Marry Me, and the melodies on here aren’t as sharp as they are on Actor or Strange Mercy, but this is a multilayered project that is a definite highlight in her discography and surely one of the best releases of 2017. Once again, her parting of words of this album was “It’s not the end”. That holds twofold as Annie Clark’s career, her odyssey, is nowhere near the end.