Review: St. Vincent Is Unabashedly Unrestrained on the Futuristic MASSEDUCTION
In the video for “New York,” the first single from St. Vincent’s new album MASSEDUCTION, Annie Clark meets us styled like a member of the Addams Family, standing between a portrait of a mouth painted wide open and a bouquet of flaming spinach. The aesthetic is gleefully bizarre, storyboarded to be made into a thousand GIFs. But the song itself, in which Clark sings sincerely movingly about her adventures in New York with a person who is now gone, is defiantly at odds with these images. The music isn’t erratic, or forceful, but delicate. Warm percussion thumps like a heartbeat, strings glisten and fly with her emotions, a chorus of Clarks harmonize about the swollen pain of walking around a city missing a very important someone: “I have lost a hero / I have lost a friend.”
Clark’s music often meets at this intersection of uncanny and earnest. She writes wedding songs that blow the institution to bits; she laughs with a mouth full of blood; she stares unblinking and unsettlingly into the camera. It’s still the animating dynamic behind MASSEDUCTION, an album designed to catapult her to further stardom as she has become an increasingly public figure, thanks to her involvement in the fashion world and her relationship with model Cara Delevingne. Now, Clark sounds like an android making future music, her body slowly replaced by mechanical parts in the years since she toured with Sufjan Stevens.
Take a song like “Hang on Me,” where her voice glitches to a syrupy crawl as she admits “The void is back and I’m blinking” over groaning synthesizers and a dusky drum machine. Then, her voice flips back to an unearthly falsetto as she makes a direct appeal for romantic solidarity—”Hang on me / cause you and me / we’re not for this world”—in the face of so much uncertainty. “Sugarboy” speeds and rattles like something you’d hear scoring an F-Zero racetrack; the title track processes her voice to robotic unrecognizability as she rips off little guitar runs in between dance floor drum patterns.
On “Los Ageless,” she imagines a not-so dystopian version of Los Angeles where the city is totally dominated by a need to be youthful, her singing solemn and flat as her guitar whines and the synths buzz. The fusion of human and synthetic is most beguiling on “Pills,” which sounds like Marnie Stern written for Top 40, all whistles and roars inside hard-charging percussion before a wild solo tears it open without breaking stride. The lyrics might almost code as social commentary, except that Clark didn’t intend it that way; instead, her rattled list of the things pills are good for sounds like a series of mantras to be remembered in the midst of the chaos.
Most of MASSEDUCTION comes in this animated vein, meant to be played out loud; to experience something like “Pills” anything but out in the open, with lots of people, would be a crime. But MASSEDUCTION does occasionally strip away these robotic accoutrements and allow Clark to sing her plain stated sentiments with appropriate accompaniment. By her own accord, it’s taken Clark some time to allow herself to be so restrained. A charming but telling anecdote in a recent New Yorker profile featured her musical engineer, upon hearing a stripped-down version of a song from the new album, asking: “It sounds pretty. Is it supposed to?” David Byrne, with whom Clark recorded an album of dissonant skronk, added: “The acceptance of beautiful melody is sometimes difficult for a downtown New York musician.” Besides “New York,” and the stirring, melancholy “Slow Disco,” there’s “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” a pared-down ballad addressed to a former hell-raising compatriot, who returns from previous songs to join the long legacy of memorable New York Johnnies. “Remember one summer we walked in Times Square,” she sings, the words falling gently like snowflakes. “I showed you the zombies with hundred-inch stares.”
Clark said “New York” was inspired by the death of David Bowie more specifically than the death of a relationship, and MASSEDUCTION has earned comparisons to the Thin White Duke, who constantly shifted personas through his own career. There’s no other contemporary artist applying such a chameleonic affect to the standard myth of singer with a guitar, and regardless of the sales, Clark has carved out a space as a guitar hero in an era where that sort of thing is supposed to be over. That is impressive, even if the theatrics occasionally wear me out, and begin to feel like preludes for a visually dynamic live show. (The reviews say it’s thrilling.) I’m much more attracted to MASSEDUCTION’s humbler moments, when you can better imagine the songs without the heavy arrangements. A song like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” would still be beautiful sung unadorned, to nobody, in a dark room. But she is pushing forward, boldly and unapologetically. “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” she sings on the title track, a line that sounds less like a declaration of lust and more like a guiding aesthetic principle. Who’s going to get in her way?