MASSEDUCTION is an album full of contradictions. It’s St. Vincent’s most unabashedly poppy album and yet it also feels like her weirdest one. It’s loud and blaring in places and quiet and tender in others. It’s fun – and it’s also heartbreaking. If it’s not Annie Clark’s best album, it’s at least safe to say that it’s her most interesting one.
With 2014’s self-titled release, it felt like Clark had perfected St. Vincent’s sound. Songs like ‘Birth In Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ felt like cumulations of the weird style she had been striving for from her very first album… So where could she really go next? In answering this question, MASSEDUCTION takes two different paths; half of the album sees St. Vincent go even further down the weirdness rabbit-hole, while the other half shows her taking things in an incredibly stripped down and emotionally honest direction. The divide between these two styles is the album’s greatest strength and its great weakness… It almost feels like Clark is torn between two worlds.
The album’s first half is full of that distinctive St. Vincent weirdness, with tracks like ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘Pills’ being pretty much instant classics for her. ‘Los Ageless’ has all the usual makings of a solid St. Vincent single – the thumping drum machine, the wailing synths, the distorted guitar riffs – and could’ve easily fit onto Clark’s last album. ‘Pills’ is similarly great. Sound-wise, it has a great childlike feel to it, with the peppy synths and Cara Delevingne’s chanting chorus vocals (‘Pills, pills, pills, every day of the week’). I also appreciate the shift that the song takes towards its end, avoiding a big finish in favour of a gorgeous and soft acoustic guitar-led breakdown.
‘Masseduction’ is another of the album’s best ‘weird’ songs, even if there isn’t that much to it. It basically centres around a single line which Clark chants over and over (‘I can’t turn off what turns me on’), but it’s such a great mantra for St. Vincent that I don’t really mind the repetition. But while the high level of repetition works on this track, it doesn’t really on ‘Sugarboy’ – easily the album’s weakest track. While it’s not completely awful – Clark’s seductive delivery on the verses is particularly good – the loud, obnoxious chanting of ‘BOYS’ and ‘GIRLS’ does get old incredibly fast.
As I said before, MASSEDUCTION feels like it’s split between two worlds – and this becomes increasingly clear in the album’s second half. Apart from ‘Fear The Future’ and ‘Young Lover’, every track has a quiet, intimate feel to it, with Clark being as emotionally open as she’s ever been before. There’s even a couple of piano ballads – a far cry from the eccentricity usually associated with St. Vincent. The first of these, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, is heart-wrenching and shows just how good a storyteller Clark can be. It demonstrates that there’s a lot more to her appeal beyond her unique instrument choices. The second of these ballads, ‘New York’ – which centres on Clark’s break-up with actress Cara Delevingne – is slightly weaker overall, but just as emotionally raw: ‘You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.’
The album’s closing tracks dial up Clark’s emotional openness even further, delivering some of the artist’s most down-right depressing work. A common problem I’ve had with St. Vincent’s past albums is that they felt like they ran out of steam (or solid songs) before the end – this is especially true with 2014’s self-titled release. MASSEDUCTION, however, avoids this problem by saving its best tracks till last. The lyrics to ‘Slow Disco’ are beautifully sad (‘Slip my hand from your hand and leave you dancing with a ghost’) and the string arrangements that hang in the background just intensify this. It’s a moving break up song that again shows how powerful Clark can be even when she strips back her sound. ‘Smoking Section’, the album’s closer, is somehow even more depressing and just makes you want to give Annie a hug. She knocks herself down pretty heavily – with there even being some suicidal imagery – leading to one her most powerful and difficult to listen to songs.
And it’s the emotional honesty on tracks like this one that really makes the album for me. It’s easily St. Vincent’s messiest and most inconsistent release, containing some of her most forgettable songs, but it also feels like one of her most important ones. And besides, break ups are messy – so shouldn’t an album born out of one be messy too?
Best Tracks: ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Smoking Section’.