By Alexa Epstein
Annie Clark, alias St. Vincent, has taken the music world by storm since her debut album, Marry Me, in 2007. Often compared to Prince and David Bowie (typically by male-run magazines who don’t know how to talk about talented female musicians), this comparison is true to an extent; her glam rock sound and avant-garde image harken back to these late masters. In her latest album, Masseduction, Clark has carved out a spot in the music world that is all her own, untethered to the men who came before her. Masseduction deals with themes of power, love, and addiction through a wave of songs that go from corporate jingle to catchy pop to heartbreaking ballad and back again.
Since early in her career, Clark has always been drawn toward the avant garde. For Masseduction, however, she takes it a step further. In addition to the album’s sound, Clark has created an entire visual aesthetic draped in neon and PVC. The album’s first music video for single “New York” collaborates with visual artist Alex de Corte to create a colorful and surreal world out of artificial installations mixed with iconic New York art pieces like the Astor Place Cube. This aesthetic, which continues in the rest of the album’s music videos, Clark’s promotional videos, and the album art, lends itself well to the music Clark has crafted, adding a visual background that fits perfectly into the world of upbeat songs like “Pills” and “Los Ageless” and creating a kind of foil for the more intimate tracks like “Happy Birthday Johnny” and “Smoking Section”.
The album’s opener, “Hang on Me,” sets the stage for the dystopian, subtly parallel universe that Clark brings us into. “The void is back and unblinking,” she croons desperately, positioning herself as an outsider who “always felt a little bit like an alien cocking my head to the side at various cultural milestones” (Pitchfork). “Pills” acts as a pop-sounding uplifter mixed with a corporate jingle. Clark has often explored similar themes of addiction, self-medicating, and depression, especially in her album Strange Mercy (2011). The chorus—sung by Clark’s ex, Cara Delevingne, under pseudonym “Kid Monkey”—sounds both manic and robotic, like a corporate ad gone wrong. Still, the lyrics don’t pass judgement on one’s use of medication, legal or otherwise, so much as share a part of Clark’s life that is both personal and universal. The album itself comes off this way, exploring universal and relatable themes through the specific lens of Clark’s life. In addition to featuring Delevingne on the album, Masseduction also features Clark’s aunt and uncle, jazz duo Tuck & Patti. Her lyrics sound ripped from her own conversations, and her musical influences are proudly displayed. The outro to “Pills,” a smooth droning call to action, is reminiscent of Pink Floyd, reminding listeners that while Clark has a strong grasp on pop as a sound, her music is not in the pop genre by any means.
The title song, “Masseduction,” combines the album’s themes into one catchy, kinky, funky tune. These themes of addiction and power play in Clark’s clever lyrics, packed full of unsubtle references. “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” the chorus boldly projects, as the deep doom-y voice of “mass seduction” interplays, morphing slowly into “mass destruction” in the same way that the album’s funky art rock moments morph into something sad at its core. “Sugarboy” explores gender and sexuality through Prince-influenced sounds, upbeat in tempo but dark in texture. Again, Clark brings personal anecdotes into a universal tale. “Oh here I go / A casualty / Hanging off from / The balcony” references an iconic moment in Clark’s Digital Witness tour in 2014 where she hung from the balcony of New Orleans’ House of Blues theater. The call-and-repeat “Boys!” and “Girls!” sounds like a childhood nursery rhyme, layering vocals in the typical style of producer Jack Antonoff, whose credits include Lorde’s Melodrama and Taylor Swift’s Reputation.
In “Los Ageless,” one of the album’s singles, Clark creates a dystopian, satirical version of Los Angeles, where “mothers milk their young” and everyone is obsessed with prolonging youth. Clark’s character in this song is directionless and unable to escape from her self-created wasteland. The grungy verses are interrupted by an earnest and heartbreaking chorus “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 minds too?” Clark sings. Perhaps the most personal song on the album, “Happy Birthday Johnny,” brings up an old character repeated on several St. Vincent albums. “Johnny” appears in Marry Me’s titular song and album St. Vincent’s “Prince Johnny.”
Whether or not “Johnny” is a real person is irrelevant; Johnny can be anyone—the friend who went a little too far and spiraled out of control, the one whom you love dearly but whose problems you cannot solve. Still, Clark personalizes the song with the line “Annie, how could you do this to me?” implying a real-life conversation behind the song’s sad lines. It’s a heartwarming interlude, placed on the tracklist between the cheeky Los Ageless and the sexy, funky, fantasy-exploring “Savior.”
“New York,” the album’s first single, is a longing ballad that explores loss in a familiar setting. Despite how crowded the city is, it can be a lonely place, and Clark captures that in lyrics and sound. The song breaks on “you’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me,” using the expletive in an intimate way, speaking to a friend. Though the song may read as particularly personal, Clark’s lyrics state that the song is about lost heroes as well as lost friends, particularly the loss of Clark’s inspiration, David Bowie.
At this point, the album fragments slightly. “Fear the Future,” also the name of Clark’s upcoming tour, seems better fit to the 2014 album St. Vincent than to Masseduction due to its apocalyptic view. “Young Lover,” perhaps the album’s catchiest song, is also one of its darkest, exploring overdose as a kind of flipped reflection of “Pills.” “Slow Disco,” which follows a short musical interlude “Dancing with a Ghost,” contemplates the universal feeling “I’m so glad I came but I can’t wait to leave.” Towards the end, Clark’s voice morphs, in yet another characteristically Antonoff style, to the point that it sounds like a completely different person, singing, “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?”
The album concludes on a much slower note than it started, with Clark singing “Smoking Section,” a song about the fleeting suicidal thoughts that seem almost universal, with the rasp of a chain-smoking lounge singer. The vulnerability Clark exudes in these slower songs is probably the most intimate look her audience has seen of her yet. “ It’s not the end,” Clark sings on the final track, and while the album is over we can only hope this means Clark will continue to bring her unique brand of art rock into the world.
Originally published 12/11/17