The evolution of Annie Clark as St. Vincent has been thrilling to witness. Starting with a slow build from the mostly subdued indie-rock of Marry Me to the slightly more experimental and artistic Actor and Strange Mercy, through her collaboration with David freakin’ Byrne on Love This Giant, St. Vincent emerged as full art-rock, Glamour Alien Goddess of the Stage with 2014’s St. Vincent. That album was a huge step forward sonically as well as in Clark’s persona, and garnered St. Vincent a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. So where do you go from there? Would this new album be a continuation of the sound developed in St. Vincent, or would it be another dazzling shift in style and presentation?
After settling into Masseduction, it seems that St. Vincent has finally unfurled and can now just “be.” The album is an evolution of sorts, and naturally it would be after three years time to grow and change, but its biggest surprise is that it feels personal.
That’s not to say Clark’s other songs are not at all personal, but her previous albums have largely been filled with narratives that are relatively vague (“Strange Mercy,” “Huey Newton”) or expressions of abstract feelings or experiences (“Your Lips Are Red,” “Marrow”). And while Masseduction doesn’t present a total change in Clark’s songwriting, the action of making an album where “literally the only point” of it is to write about love makes it different from her previous works which did not have clear themes. It’s more difficult to maintain the almost observational, scientific distance between Clark and her audience which the previous albums carried when most of the songs here are about feelings most of us can find some way to deeply relate to.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You want to know if the album is a good listen – it is. Above all, it’s fun. Fun in a way that romances are “fun,” in that they get you excited, a little crazy and inevitably there’s a sad or regretful comedown. Clark covers all of those bases, with experiments here in pop, guitar-shredding rock, and heartfelt ballads.
Describing St. Vincent as “pop” may be the most surprising result of this album. Now working with Producer of Everything Jack Antonoff, she fills her songs with plenty of pithy gems that wiggle into your subconscious: “New York isn’t New York without you, love,” “I can’t turn off what turns me on” and the relentless chorus of “Pills” which describes all of the uses for pills (“Pills to walk, pills to think, pills, pills, pills for the family” and on).
The relentless energy of Masseduction carries you through the 41-minute journey. One of the best aspects of the album is that there is never really lag time. In previous St. Vincent albums there are usually some lulls or skippable songs, particularly in the back half. Here, each song flows into the other and is over just as you’re ready for it to be. The album length is “just right” and avoids feeling overstuffed. So while the individual songs of the album are not like the thrilling bursts of rock and beauty on St. Vincent, the album as a whole is an enjoyable, coherent, and efficient experience.
It begins with “Hang On Me,” a soft opening that nevertheless gets you in the right head space for the album. The initial semi-industrial beats immediately brought to mind the beginning to one of the more famous songs about lust, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” However, St. Vincent’s song maintains an ethereal, slightly pained tone as she sings “you and me, we are not for this world.” The song introduces simultaneously the rougher, lustier feelings expressed in Masseduction as well as the more somber, introspective elements.
“Pills” is an explosion of pop, with dizzying phrasing to make our head spin, as in “from the chains to the reins to the vein/to the brain, anyway there’s a day/and I’ll pay it in pain.” The song speeds on ahead, with the chorus sung with commercial-jingle pep by Cara Delevingne, until it comes to a slow, drifting end that sneaks in some surprising darkness.
That doesn’t last too long, as the next few songs are pure rock-out numbers. “Masseduction” is fitting as the album title, as the song is largely a repetition of the declaration “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” a solid statement for the album as a whole. It evokes another sexy Alien God of the Stage, Prince, with its embrace of sexuality (“I don’t turn off what turns me on”) and slightly funky music that just wants to get your body moving. “Sugarboy” is equally embracing, with Clark singing “I am a lot like you boys, I am a lot like you girls,” which not only clarifies this album’s journey into love and sexuality as a universal experience, but holds a hand out to the listener to bridge the personal gap. Clark is a lot like us! Are we a lot like her? Probably, yeah.
“Los Ageless,” is one of the songs that remind you how “crazy” love can make you feel. The guitar work is a blast, and Clark sings with the jagged, jaded attitude of a real rock star, eventually lamenting with yet another earworm, “How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?” Clark then takes a breath with the slower, sadder “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and “New York.” The former could be considered a sequel to St. Vincent’s “Prince Johnny,” describing here a gradual falling out and disconnection with a dear, old friend while “New York” is about missing the “only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.”
Before the album ends we get another dose of rock, with “Savior,” which touches on roleplay and S&M, and “Fear the Future,” an energetic burst of romantic anxiety about the present and future, and then “Young Lover” which is a stand-out track about the titular person who nearly overdoses on those omnipresent pills and which most-likely accidentally is reminiscent of the shocked singer of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” due to a similar turn of phrase. It might be that “Young Lover, I’m begging you please to wake up… I wish that I was your drug,” is the modern equivalent of “Cecilia, I’m begging you please to come home… you’re shaking my confidence daily.”
The album ends softly with summations of the songs that came before. “Dancing With a Ghost/Slow Disco” and “Smoking Section” illustrate the general themes beyond romance, that is of the failure to totally connect or communicate with another person, and the damaging or distorting effects on a relationship by outside forces such as drugs, fame, time and distance.
St. Vincent has managed to make a personal album on her own terms. She’s not required to spill any gossip-rag details, but is willing to open up about her own regrets and to celebrate the various experiences of sexuality in such a way that we can all find a beat to follow. If it turns you on, don’t turn it off.