St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, says that ‘if you want to know about my life, listen to this record’.
It’s a bold invitation from someone who was thrust into the mainstream limelight because of a relationship with an uber-famous British supermodel who has a bazillion followers. Suddenly St. Vincent is as close to a household name as she ever has been, despite winning a Grammy in 2015 for the brilliant self-titled album (though as groundbreaking and amazing as St. Vincent was, we can’t imagine that the average 14 year-old teen would have picked up a copy).
Two years later, they might pick up MASSEDUCTION (that’s -seduction, not -education) and give it a spin and find a record that takes the industrial desolation of St. Vincent, the ‘housewife on pills’ beauty of Strange Mercy, and the general Clark quirk to produce an introspective and sonically intriguing album that really does feel like her most personal one yet.
Co-produced by Clark and Jack Antonoff (it’s probably easier to find what isn’t produced by him these days), MASSEDUCTION is edgy and funny, it’s loud and it’s sexy as much as it is self-aware, deeply personal and poignant in its revelations. There is a sense that Clark is trying to take control of something slipping through her fingers. It’s as simple as “can’t stop the taxi cab from crashing” on the Kanye-esque opener Hang On Me, or the disarmingly upbeat Pills that takes deranged pop toward a sad reminder of the American Healthcare System’s reliance on big pharma.
Pills is a showcase for St. Vincent’s lyrical style and musicianship with a classic psychedelic rock breakdown that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Pink Floyd record. Meanwhile the title track, depending on when it was written, is a perfect tribute to Prince with Clark repeating “can’t turn off what turns me on” over some absolutely delicious funk and synths. Is this Clark making a statement on sexuality while growing up in conservative Texas – or is it just a really cool song about sex? Well, as always, we get to decide as St. Vincent never quite draws the curtain back fully enough to know for certain.
80s industrial pop synths weave through the first half of this album – maybe that’s Antonoff’s influence – but it still fits St. Vincent well in all its shoulder-padded glory. By the time we’re past the obligatory song about how Los Angeles is fake (but that chorus is still fire on Los Ageless) it’s like a new, different and quieter album begins. On Happy Birthday, Jonny it truly feels that Clark is living up to her promise that we can get to know her on this album – whoever Jonny is to St. Vincent, it’s someone who has been mentioned before on Prince Jonny from her 2014 album, and their relationship is obviously an important one to Clark. It is a beautiful song with lyrics delivered in a way that echoes a deep and turbulent water under the bridge.
It’s on the latter half of the album that Clark’s skill as a songwriter shines, with an absolutely gorgeous refrain that comes towards the end of New York. Clark laments “I have lost a hero, I have lost a friend, but for you darling I would do it all again,” which turns out to be a beautiful and a showstopping highlight of the album. Meanwhile, for those listening just to find a reference to a certain British supermodel (who is rumoured to be singing backing vocals somewhere) then Young Lover is a logical place to stop and hear an angsty track from someone who is realising that perhaps the age difference is going to come between them.
If you can separate the two, then both St. Vincent and Annie Clark sound self-assured and confident on MASSEDUCTION, especially to begin with. The bravado and the facade slip eventually, as Clark herself realises that she can’t maintain this veneer in person, let alone on song. Maybe this is intended but there is something a little jarring in the personality change, like Clark is trying hard to shed who St. Vincent is and take control of something bigger and louder. It works and it doesn’t, and maybe that’s the point because as much as we all put on this front (‘it’s fine, really it’s fine, things are great’) it reflects our sense of being afraid, a little nervous and a little damaged but not beyond repair. MASSEDUCTION isn’t a perfect album but it is a personal one – it makes mistakes, it absolutely shines and it betrays its own confidence at times. That’s kind of what life is like, and in that respect we do know Annie Clark’s life a whole lot better now.