Annie Clark’s latest St. Vincent album, MASSEDUCTION, is an instant classic, delivering an often dark and desolate vision rendered with a glistening pop sheen.By Dave Faulkner.
St. Vincent’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’
Yesterday Annie Clark released MASSEDUCTION, her fifth album under the St. Vincent moniker and her best by a long streak. Produced in collaboration with Jack Antonoff – known for his work with Taylor Swift and Lorde – the appetising pop sheen can’t disguise the album’s dark side. Themes of dissolution, deviancy, disappointment and despair are threaded through the lyrics, though I hasten to add that MASSEDUCTION has many lighter, playful moments, too. It’s a perfect marriage of pop and art, distracting the ear with beguiling melodies and irresistible beats as it insinuates itself into your subconscious.
“Hang On Me” begins with a programmed kick drum, pneumatic snare and distorted bass synths in a slow, stoned hip-hop feel. Musically, we are turning our backs to the sun and entering a twilight world. Clark’s plaintive, tremulous voice appears to be in a one-sided conversation with a messagebank:
I know you’re probably sleeping
I got this thing I keep thinking
Yeah I admit I been drinking
The void is back and unblinking
Clark imagines impending disaster and is almost resigned to her doom, singing, “you and me, we’re not meant for this world”, though the melody is strangely soothing and beatific. I can’t decide if the music is offering a glimmer of hope against the void or welcoming it instead.
The album’s second song, “Pills”, is much more upbeat, though it’s a lurid, manic kind of cheeriness, with a sing-song chorus that resembles a twisted 1950s advertising jingle:
Pills to wake, pills to sleep, pills pills pills every day
of the week
Pills to work, pills to think, pills pills pills for the
Pills to grow, pills to shrink, pills pills pills and
a good stiff drink
Pills to fuck, pills to eat, pills pills pills down the
Synths bubble and beats effervesce but it’s the sugary melody that helps this medicine go down. “Pills” describes a difficult personal time for the artist, as Clark revealed when I interviewed her in Sydney recently. “I was having to perform all the time … and I didn’t have any limbs to grab, you know,” she said. “The only thing that I had was just pills to try and keep me afloat.” She was referring to Ambien, a sedative that has become notorious for its disorienting side effects. “You take Ambien, the next thing you know you think you’re in a forest of elves,” Clark said. “But you’re actually eating butter out of your kitchen trash. Like, it’s really intense.” I can almost hear forest elves singing that nagging refrain: “Pills, pills, pills every day of the week.”
MASSEDUCTION’s ultra-modern production and sharp arrangements are a far cry from the intricate, fuzzed-up musical constructions that characterised St. Vincent’s early work, beginning with 2007’s Marry Me. That album, though beloved, was a grab bag of musical styles and poetic obfuscation. Over the next three albums, Clark continued to refine her vision, making her songs more comprehensible and less baroque. Her quest for clarity reached a climax in 2014 with the self-titled St. Vincent, a cogent collection of songs that became her commercial breakthrough and won a Grammy the following year. After four albums, St. Vincent had finally arrived and Clark’s metamorphosis from outsider to mature artist appeared to be complete, but she refused to stand still. “You’ve gotta keep things spicy,” she told me. “Not keep doing what you’ve done before. I could have done another oblique, super-complicated record, but I’ve done that.” With MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent has undergone another radical transformation and in the process Clark has come up with some of the most powerful and revealing songs of her career.
In the title track, she sings, “I can’t turn off what turns me on”. Here, she states the principal theme of the album: the struggle for control in the face of powerful forces, both from without and within. The song is “like a thesis”, Clark told me. “And all of the characters that appear on the record appear on the song. ‘Punk rock romantic on the kitchen floor’ – I mean, you’ve got Johnny (“Happy Birthday, Johnny”), I’ve got Lolita in there (“Young Lover”), Smiling Nihilist, yeah, everybody’s in there.” When I asked her about the smiling nihilist, Clark replied, “That’s kinda me.” She laughed and continued: “Yeah. Like, a really sunny nihilist.” The new wave/post-punk flavour of “Masseduction” has been supercharged by producer Antonoff into a clubby slow groove, but on the track that comes after it, “Sugarboy”, the music dives headlong into clubland at a frantic 140bpm, driven by a Moroder-derived synth line. “Sugarboy” plays with ideas of gender and sexuality and its propulsive dance-floor groove is a natural fit for the subject.
Clark encountered the downside of fame recently when her year-long relationship with model-actress Cara Delevingne played out under the gaze of the paparazzi. Though they are no longer together, the two remain friends and it is Delevingne who sings the choruses of “Pills”. Clark has been coy about whether their relationship is depicted in these songs. “I can only write about my life,” she told The Guardian in August. “And that – dating Cara – was a big part of my life. I wouldn’t take it off-limits just because my songs might get extra scrutiny. People would read into them what they would, and you know what? Whatever they thought they found there would be absolutely right. And at the same time it would be absolutely wrong.” Regardless of what Clark may own up to in interviews, songs such as “New York”, “Los Ageless” and “Young Lover” have lines that sound very specific to their relationship. However, this album shouldn’t be mistaken for a personal diary or documentary; it’s much more mysterious and profound. It’s art, and that is always larger than life.
The latest single taken from the album is the sardonic “Los Ageless”.
The lost sages hang out by the bar
burn the pages of unwritten memoirs
But I can keep running, oh I can keep running
How can anybody have you?
How can anybody have you and lose you?
How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?
That chorus could either be addressing Delevingne or the city of Los Angeles or possibly both. Clark can’t see any escape, singing, “But how can I leave? I just follow the hood of my car”, as if she has no control over the direction her life has taken.
“New York” was the poignant first single, a haunting song about a collapsed relationship. Again, it could be the city itself that was the object of her affections rather than any individual, although I believe it’s the latter. St. Vincent first performed “New York” last year but she has now added a chorus to anchor it emotionally and musically. I told Clark I would have liked that chorus to repeat more. She responded, “Yeah, but then people wouldn’t want to listen to it again. [Antonoff and I] thought about it and we both said, ‘No, be spartan about it.’ ” The entire album is spartan, with only three songs exceeding four minutes and many others a lot less. It runs 44 minutes in total, but feels a lot shorter, always a good sign.
Each St. Vincent album is based around a different aesthetic, apart from the debut. Actor (2009) was heavily influenced by classic Disney animation. Strange Mercy (2011) portrayed “a housewife on pills”, while the songs on St. Vincent (2014) were envisioned for “a near-future cult leader”. It’s a conceptual conceit employed by many artists, notably David Bowie, a huge influence on Clark. MASSEDUCTION posits St. Vincent as a “dominatrix of the mental institution … a colourful distillation of my insane life of the past three years,” she told me. That’s very overt in “Savior”, where the singer assumes a variety of roles – nurse, teacher, nun and policewoman – before finishing in standard fetish gear:
Dress me in leather
well, that’s a little better
but that’s still not it
none of this shit fits
But I keep you on your best behavior
Honey, I can’t be your savior
Love you to the grave and farther,
Honey, I am not your martyr.
But then you say, “please…”
Then you say, “please…”
The balance of power should favour the narrator but it’s clear her “slave” is calling the shots. This sounds a little tawdry in print but comes across as slightly comical and strangely touching on record. Clark stressed that the lyrics shouldn’t be interpreted literally. “The song can be taken in a lot of different ways,” she said. “Either way, it’s about projection … the kind of roles we project on other people and what those people project on us.” Then she immediately contradicted herself, “It’s not not literal.” Clark likes to rub contrasting notions together to make sparks fly.
The album’s final two songs are highlights for me. “Slow Disco” occupies the same sort of bleak terrain that Lou Reed explored on Berlin. The song, which is nothing like disco, sees St. Vincent imagine her own death, perhaps even invite it:
Am I thinking what everybody’s thinking?
I’m so glad I came but I can’t wait to leave?
Slip my hand from your hand
leave you dancing with a ghost
The beautiful melody is matched with a pastoral string arrangement, and there’s a hint of gospel in the final line as it keeps repeating, “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?” An elegiacal guitar solo dances a pas de deux with the vocal, then a sombre keyboard gently fades away into silence. Clark may not be talking about literally becoming a ghost here but, then, she may not not be doing that, too.
“Smoking Section” finishes the album on a ghastly note. It’s a grotesque cabaret in waltz time that borders on becoming a funeral march. Clark depicts a number of perilous scenarios and the spectre of death gets closer each time, finally becoming manifest in the last verse:
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
As the song anxiously shuffles to a close, an angelic choir jarringly asks, “What could be better than love?” It sounds more like a taunt than solace. The song ends with St. Vincent pleading “It’s not the end” like a mantra, while pedal steel guitars duet mournfully. Then, unexpectedly, it is the end. Paradoxically, the piano finishes on a major chord, coincidentally in the same key as the opening song, “Hang On Me”.
MASSEDUCTION masquerades as conventional pop but it slowly reveals its richness and complexity, reverberating deeper in the listener’s psyche with every listen. Despite playing it countless times, for me there is still something elusive and ineffable about this album. In a world where music is increasingly facile and disposable, St. Vincent is a rarity. Not just not disposable; this is music that is indispensable. I’m calling it now – this is a classic.
VISUAL ART Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until February 4
MULTIMEDIA Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 29
SCIENCE Uluru Astronomy Weekend
Ayers Rock Resort's Uluru Meeting Place, October 20-22
VISUAL ART In Plain Sight
The Nook, Perth, October 17-December 5
MULTIMEDIA Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait
Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, until March 25
MULTIMEDIA Future Artefacts
Craft Victoria, Melbourne, until November 18
FESTIVAL Crows Nest Festival
Venues throughout Crows Nest, Sydney, October 15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2017 as "Vincent prize". Subscribe here.