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Album Review: St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
The new St Vincent album lurches between the deeply personal and the completely absurd, yet somehow still manages to be utterly brilliant, reviews Music Editor Thom Dent
Annie Clark likes to keep us guessing. Over the course of four studio albums we’ve seen several completely disparate reinventions of the St Vincent character, from the mumsy psychopath of Marry Me through to the icy lilac cult leader of her eponymous 2014 release St Vincent. And in the run up to MASSEDUCTION, Clark seemed to be gearing up for her most cryptic aesthetic yet. The strange, silent interview videos that appeared regularly on her Instagram feed; the lurid colour schemes that first appeared in promotion of her latex-coated ‘Fear the Future’ tour, and then carried on over into the voyeuristic album art…
And yet, when first single ‘New York’ was released in the summer, it seemed to completely ditch this whole ‘Sade-on-acid’ concept by appearing in the shape of a subtle, heartfelt ballad about estranged lovers and loneliness in a big city. Curious, and made more curious by the release of second single ‘Los Ageless’ a few weeks later. This song had all the plasticity and finesse of a classic St Vincent cut, sounding like an updated (though less potent) version of the lead single from her last album, ‘Digital Witness’.
So, in which direction does MASSEDUCTION swing? Well, the opening tracks certainly give little away: opener ‘Hang On Me’ eases you into the record with a morning bell of cryptic synths and a simplistic drum patter. ‘I know you’re probably sleeping / I’ve got this thing I’ve been thinking’ croons Clark, in a surprisingly gentle first lyric. The song slowly blooms with the addition of creamy guitars, string chords that just about cut through the soupy mix, and the occasional tubular bell chime for good measure. It’s a sleepy start, but not necessarily a poor one.
“'Sugarboy' is like a sugar rush, fizzing like sherbet and exploding like a Mentos in coke
Unfortunately the next track, ‘Pills’, is poor - built around a comically nursery hook that gets old after its first repetition, yet cycles incessantly for nearly 5 minutes. It’s certainly more lively than ‘Hand On Me’, and eventually morphs into a nice dreamy outro, but the chorus’ inane ‘pills pills pills every day of the week’ earworm is far too twee, far too grating. Maybe it’s conceptual, maybe it’s meta, but it’s definitely not a good listening experience.
It is at this point that MASSEDUCTION finally kicks into gear. The double whammy of ‘Masseduction’ and ‘Sugarboy’ is as good as any, with the former drenched in a robotic vocoder hook, dirty squalls of guitar and huge, blaring synthesisers. ‘I can’t turn off what turns me on’, sings Clark, in a sadomasochistic nod to perverse sexuality that’s in keeping with what was advertised as the album’s vision. The song closes on a beautiful cacophony, as the instrumentation mixes itself together into one vivid, perfect mess. ‘Sugarboy’ takes the idea and literally runs with it, picking up the pace with hectic, fluttering keyboards and a beefy snare. A complete jam, perfect for those super-indie jogging playlists you like to listen to. Like the title, this song is a sugar rush, fizzing like sherbet and exploding like a Mentos in coke. Now that’s more like it.
“‘Fear the Future’, easily the oddest song on the tracklist merely due to its… well, there’s no other way of saying this, it sounds like a Nero song
Considering that St Vincent is well-known for her uniquely virtuosic guitar work, on MASSEDUCTION we quite rarely hear anything like the chunky riffs that defined songs such as ‘Huey Newton’ or ‘Regret’. On ‘Savior’, an amusing ditty about trying on a series of outfits befitting Clark’s various kinks, the guitars are dialled back, barely poking through underneath the main vocal. Then there’s ‘Fear the Future’, easily the oddest song on the tracklist merely due to its… well, there’s no other way of saying this, it sounds like a Nero song. It sounds like goddam ‘Me And You’ by Nero was plonked in the middle of an indie record. Massive, almost dubsteppy verses and a chorus that builds in volume and tension as it leads towards what can only be described as a drop. It’s brilliant.
On ‘Young Lover,’ one of the more intriguing cuts on the record, guitars only really appear to smack the song into life when the chorus kicks in. That said, this song in particular is dominated mainly by Clark’s incredible vocal performance, containing an honest-to-god key change that’s undoubtedly the best moment on the album, as Annie’s voice spirals up into echelons previously only frequented by the likes of insects and Kate Bush.
“The record lurches from sadomasochism to long-lost love to psychopathy without any real regard for coherency
Beyond being an album that improves upon repeat listens, MASSEDUCTION actually gets better as it goes along. Even though by the end of ‘Pills’ you’re convinced that St Vincent has finally lost all semblance of quality, by the time the final piano chord of lurking closer ‘Smoking Section’ has died out you’ve already forgotten every doubt you ever had. Moreover, it’s stylistically very hard to place MASSEDUCTION firmly in any corner. The record lurches from sadomasochism to long-lost love to psychopathy without any real regard for coherency. And, although songs like ‘Fear the Future’ go out of their way to perpetuate that bizarrely impenetrable mask of the St Vincent persona, at certain points – like on the thoughtful ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, or the stunningly atmospheric ‘Slow Disco’ – we’re treated to a rare glimpse of the Annie Clark that lies beneath that cold exterior.
While it’s less instantaneous than its artwork would suggest, MASSEDUCTION is also far less abrasive. You aren’t going to find a song on here that would fit perfectly on any other St Vincent record (and there are even some you could argue don’t even belong on this one – still looking at you, ‘Pills’), but ultimately this is an album of opposites, as lurid and dissonant as fluorescent pink on fluorescent orange, and as eclectic as it is superb.
MASSEDUCTION is released on October 13th via Loma Vista Recordings. St Vincent plays Manchester on October 18th - tickets are available here.