Album Review: St. Vincent - MASSEDUCTION
“Ask whether Annie Clark and St. Vincent are the same person,” reads the title card of one of the recent journalist-lampooning series of clips posted on St. Vincent’s Instagram over the last month. In the series, which highlights some of the most basic and inane questions she has repeatedly answered over the course of her career, this is a particularly stupid question, especially coming into Masseduction, the fifth St. Vincent album. Now more than ever, St. Vincent has become much more than a person or even a band; it is a project encompassing multiple characters, collaborators and media formats. The extraneous elements of the album roll-out campaign – the Instagram clips, the videos for ‘New York’ and ‘Los Ageless’, the performances on late night shows etc. – all feel of a piece; crucial to the understanding of Masseduction as an artistic statement, not merely just an album.
It's fair to say that Annie Clark's star has risen in the celebrity world, thanks to associations with various recognisable faces, and she uses that as a starting point, before handing it over to become part of the wacky world of St. Vincent. She has picked specific collaborators to help mine the depths of the psyche at work in the project. The Carrie Brownstein-assisted junket clips gave an insight into the snarky, unimpressed persona carried out by St. Vincent through the album. The Willo Perron directed video for ‘Los Ageless’ saw her taking on the other side of the coin as a socialite going through ridiculous surgery to counteract aging, admitting the importance for surface beauty in the glamourised world she inhabits. This was also examined in the eye-popping pastel backdropped video for ‘New York’, created by visual artist Alex Da Corte, which additionally inducted viewers into the vibrant aural sensations delivered in the songs of Masseduction. And as for the music, we can count Jack Antonoff, Cara Delavingne, Kamasi Washington, Jenny Lewis and Sounwave as just some of the contributors to that element. It's clear that while the album may have originated in Annie Clark's experiences, the end result is much bigger than that.
Masseduction is a treatise on intimate connections, covering the obvious love, sex, and loss, but blown up to cartoon, Hollywood proportions. From the very start you can hear and see the ideas that were explored in the clips and videos stretched to their fullest, most histrionic range. Opening track ‘Hang On Me’ finds one lover drunkenly calling their partner in the middle of the night, feeling as though she's falling into a void or spiralling down in a plane crash, and needs to cling to her partner through this untimely ending because they’re “not meant for this world” anyway. This kind of melodrama is rife throughout the album, spurred on by reliance on sex and drugs for escape. The narcotic element is brought most obviously into focus on the pastiche pharmaceutical jingle ‘Pills’, both brilliant and bothersome in its lightheaded and lighthearted peppiness, manically trilling “pills to fuck/ pills to eat/ pills pills pills down the kitchen sink,” like the repetitive inner monologue of a numbed Hollywood housewife.
Sex is more present on Masseduction than on any other St. Vincent album; after all, the ultimate aim in staying thin, looking glamorous, taking all these medications and surgical shortcuts is to remain an object of sexual attraction and get your end off with some gorgeous being – and there’s absolutely no shame in it. Over blasting electronics, the title track unabashedly announces “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” which might as well be the mission statement of the project. The effervescent zip of ‘Sugarboy’ finds our protagonist desperately appealing to both boys and girls for some hot and heavy action by highlighting - and trying to take advantage of - their shared loneliness. This decadence often turns to disaster, as on ‘Young Lover’, where the titular character is in a comatose state with their sexual partner bending over them, begging them to wake up (partly in fear, mostly so they can get back to drinking and fucking). Even an ostensibly wholesome song, ‘Savior’, is all about getting kinky: “you dress me up in a nurse’s outfit/ it rides and sticks to my thighs and hips,” she begins, before going on to try on several other seductive outfits for her pleading partner. Coupled with a bluesy guitar lick taken straight off a porn soundtrack, the result is undeniably arousing.
Of course, amidst all these chemically assisted highs there come many lows, and these are perhaps the most resounding moments of Masseduction. ‘New York’ is elegiac piece to someone whose loss has tainted the whole city, but for whom she would “do it all again.” ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ catches up with ‘Prince Johnny’ from St. Vincent, but this time the recounting of their antics is doused in regret. A piano ballad with drapes of pedal steel and subtle synths (by far the most musically simple track on the album), 'Happy Birthday, Johnny' works to devastating effect as she recounts their pyromaniac highs before thinking back to the last time they met, him living on the street and asking her for money to buy something to eat. The string-laden ‘Slow Dance’ takes the inner monologue of a person at a party when they’re just not feeling it: “Am I thinking what everybody’s thinking?/ I’m so glad I came but I can’t wait to leave,” coming to the crushing conclusion that they’re bored of existence: “don’t it beat a slow dance to death?”
This admission gives way to Masseduction’s final song and lowest point, ‘Smoking Section’, in which our singer is imagining various ways of ending her life; burning alive, shooting herself, jumping off her building. But, despite all the numbness and lack of will, she asks herself “what could be better than love?” On cue, a pedal steel shivers in like a ray of sunlight amid the austere surroundings, and she repeats to herself “it’s not the end,” stepping away from the edge, to live and love another day. It’s perhaps an overly simple and saccharine ending – but this is Hollywood, after all.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 13th October 2017.