ST. VINCENT’S GLEE-INDUCING NEW ALBUM MASSEDUCTION SHOULDN’T SEEM THIS SURPRISING. Over the course of four records, Annie Clark has foreshadowed what, in retrospect, feels inevitable. She’s steadily built her case for, and claim to, being our foremost wayward-pop virtuoso. A dotted line can be drawn from Marry Me’s “Paris is Burning” to Actor’s “Actor Out of Work” to Strange Mercy’s “Cruel” to St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” to her latest, swirling work. Hearing MASSEDUCTION for the first or second (or, hell, twelfth) time can result in Plummeting Jaw Syndrome. No amount of familiarity with St. Vincent’s album-to-album progression fully prepares the listener for a return so effortlessly stunning, an achievement so assured.
Annie Clark’s previous record was equally lauded upon its release in 2014 (as was Strange Mercy in 2011). A pattern has emerged. St. Vincent was a revelation and endures as one of this decade’s great, front-to-back rock albums. Though it shares genetic material with St. Vincent’s self-titled career synopsis, MASSEDUCTION stands as an all-around amplification and expansion of its predecessor’s maturing pop instincts and consistently terse song structures. The album defies you to find an ounce of flab: lean and ferocious, tender and heartbreaking, its 41 minutes blow by with the emotional force of a battering gale.
Since St. Vincent, Clark has nabbed a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, stood in for Kurt Cobain during a Nirvana tribute, and become a fixture on red carpets with (now ex-girlfriend) Cara Delevingne by her side. Confronted with a golden opportunity, she has chosen to seize and undermine it with the same stroke. Working with superstar co-producer Jack Antonoff (hot on the heels of Lorde’s Melodrama), big-time fame seemed fixed in Clark’s crosshairs. The actual product of their collaboration shatters this delusion. Though bursting with immediate, throat-grabbing melodies, MASSEDUCTION is very much a St. Vincent record. Arch, droll, and cataclysmic, these are not the characteristics from which multi-platinum blockbusters are made. But MASSEDUCTION does make for a phenomenal work of art, a benchmark Clark exceeds with a brazen catwalk strut.
Even so, there’s much here for the newbie, the celebrity gawker, to love. In an interview with NPR, Clark said, “I think that these are just the best songs that I've ever written. And I mean songs with a capital ‘S.’” By her own definition, that “capital ‘S’” refers to all-time finest works, classic tunes that “feel like [the artist] plucked them out of the ether.” MASSEDUCTION offers a cornucopia of such riches. Its title-track booms with flirtation and sexual menace. “Pills” transforms a guitar-shredding jingle into an elegy (with a gorgeous sax assist from Kamasi Washington). “Los Ageless” slinks and twirls before exploding into a gigantic chorus. And “New York” devastates as a lullaby of loss that builds to a cathartic singalong.
But Annie Clark isn’t interested in descending from her weird mountain perch. She’s hauling the rest of us upward, to join her in the clouds. For every one of her pop-inflected intimations, there’s the chiming woe of “Hang on Me”, the bleak cheers of “Sugarboy”, the ominous funk of “Savior”, the harrowing balladry of “Happy Birthday, Johnny”, the apocalyptic roar of “Fear the Future”, the barreling thrust of “Young Lover”, the string-laden comedown of “Slow Disco”. MASSEDUCTION concludes with “Smoking Section”, the darkest of Clark’s open-book disclosures. Few albums, pop or otherwise, reckon with depression, addiction, and other daily sorrows with compassion this deep, and a smirk this self-effacing.
On the outro to “Los Ageless”, Clark whispers, “I try to write you a love song but it comes out a lament.” It’s an apology of sorts, directed at both a former lover and her fans. She can’t muster a flattering excuse for failure and instead settles on the truth: “I guess that's just me, honey, I guess that's how I'm built.” So, MASSEDUCTION joins Grimes’ Art Angels and Lorde’s Melodrama as the inverse of a traditional pop album, one that undercuts the very genre it lifts. St. Vincent has consolidated, digested, and now transcended her former styles. What’s left is an artist reframing the landscape, a reverse-chameleon who can’t camouflage, but transforms the world around her instead. “Pop” is the sound of a bubble bursting. A