St. Vincent’s fifth studio album, her second since attracting widespread critical attention with her self-titled 2014 effort, is yet another quirky and ambient rock-influenced pop album with a heaping degree of sardonic social commentary to go along with it.
MASSEDUCTION is futuristic and funny, as St. Vincent thrives in the genreless chaos but always maintains enough of a musical and narrative thread to lead listeners along her examination of narratives of sensuality and stimulants. I’d call it one of the strongest pop albums of the year, but that would almost be doing a disservice to all of the many diverse and engaging places Annie Clark manages to transport us to over the course of a single album.
The album was written and produced almost exclusively by Clark herself and superproducer Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, who has contributed to some of the greatest pop albums in recent years and certainly makes his trademark style felt all over this project. While there are not as many Antonoffian repetitions of musical motifs, certain themes continue to resurface as the album progresses, making it somewhat of a concept album with a narrative thread.
“Pills” is quintessential St. Vincent – the chorus syncopates a childlike, advertising jingle of a melody with a gargantuan beat that makes you feel like you’re losing your mind. On this chorus, none other than actress and Clark’s ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne sings a few repetitive and hypnotic lines explicating how taking pills for many ordinary facets of life can become disastrous. On the same track, we get a roaring guitar solo, Kamasi Washington’s saxophone embellishments and a beautiful gospel-tinged outro that takes the sarcastic and cynical nature of the song to the next, darkly hilarious level.
Many tracks on this album inherit this same hypnotic quality, as St. Vincent spends a lot of time criticizing how easily we are indoctrinated by advertising, religion, and the like. They are driven by fast paced beats and techno synths, but the undercurrent of Clark’s guitar sends the entropy of the album into overdrive.
A robotic voice repeats the album’s title on “Masseduction” – ultimately turning to “mass destruction” as Clark submits to the seduction of the masses, while she draws reference to her genderfluidity on “Sugarboy” as the rolling drums pound and a distorted voice repeats “Boys! Girls!” The whole song is full of ambient noise and chaos, but Clark’s mellifluous voice rises above it all to make sense of the madness. It’s all a lot to take in, but more often than not she throws in just enough of a catchy hook somewhere that you become drawn into the explosions and panic – as the album’s title would suggest.
Clark’s voice is incredibly dynamic, capable of delivering a dramatic and emotional hook on a track like “Los Ageless” or resorting to softer, almost angelic tones on stripped-back tracks like “Happy Birthday, Johnny”. The latter is one of the strongest tracks here, as Clark proves she can make magic out of the minimal just as much as the chaotic.
Adopting a theatrical tone that might be confused for Lady Gaga at her most vulnerable, she sings a rather ambiguous address to a self-destructive and displaced person with whom she had some relationship in the past over some somber and achingly beautiful piano chords. “Johnny’s just Johnny – doesn’t everyone know a Johnny?” Clark said when asked to clarify.
Clark’s lyrics are the glue that holds all of this together. Her dark twists remind me a lot of Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy”, often blunt and sarcastic but dropping the occasional lyrical gem that makes you think about the state of the world in the same way.
Clark is not afraid to address more serious topics either, and she does it in an absolutely spine-chilling way on closing track “Smoking Section”, where she addresses her real-life suicidal thoughts. Her emotional tone really makes you picture it as she describes the gun to her head, or standing on the ledge of a building, as the voice in her head repeats “let it happen, let it happen” with the most profoundly unsettling melody. The track gives me chills every time, Clark’s lower growl contrasting with eerie piano notes and deafening synth explosions. When she reverses course at the end of the track, the album fading away as she ironically repeats “it’s not the end”, it’s an absolute relief.
The album might have benefited from a bit more concision, as some of its more redundant and less defined chaotic moments are all placed closer to its end. “New York” was written as a counterpart to “Los Ageless”, but since it is displaced from the former in the tracklisting the less dramatic, simplistic version of the similar themes feels less potent and unnecessary.
A track like “Fear The Future”, meanwhile, contains the same distortion as many of the tracks that preceded it, but as it is one of the album’s most underwritten tracks and less sticky melodies it quickly becomes easily skippable due to the difficulty of consuming the sheer wall of sound.
“Young Lover” doesn’t do a much better job at reining in the distortion either, although the track does provide some necessary continuation of the narrative of St. Vincent’s mysterious partner – likely Delevingne at this point due to her familial history with drug abuse – continuing to succumb to the world’s, well, masseduction.
MASSEDUCTION is just as much of a masterpiece in experimental pop as St. Vincent was, as Clark’s dynamic voice, intelligent lyrics and guitar shreds collide into a confusing and beautiful sonic world.
Favourite Tracks: Pills, Smoking Section, Happy Birthday Johnny, Masseduction, Los Ageless
Least Favourite Track: Fear The Future