There is a sense of relief experienced when first hearing St Vincent’s fifth album proper, Masseduction. Certainly since her third record Strange Mercy, and her best to date, there has been a gathering of momentum in the singer’s desire to make her version of a pop album, and also become its accompanying pop star. Masseducation is produced by another person who is in love with the idea of a certain kind of nostalgic ‘chorus-verse-huge chorus’ pop record and who has recently worked with 2 global superstars. Jack Antonoff, overseer of both Lorde and Taylor Swift’s 2017 albums, confirms that St Vincent’s foray into the pop-zone didn’t happen by chance given his recent track record. The relief then is that Annie Clarke has finally, fully immersed herself in one of her favourite genres. It works beautifully.
St Vincent has never made a song quite as straightforward as the sleek, electro-pop of ‘Los Ageless’ before, but that song is only a snapshot of an album that is often unnervingly manic and comes with a full range of comedown symptoms too. Album opener ‘Hang On Me’ merges these two styles brilliantly and has a wonderfully written, melancholic melody; a love-letter to another misfit barely coping with a world ‘neither of us are made for’. It combines both the synth and chamber-pop sonic sensibilities that this record, for the large part, employs. And don’t worry, it may not feature on ‘Hang On Me’, but Annie’s soaring guitar is not absent from the majority of Masseducation’s songs. The next 4 tracks are startling in their insanely-paced, full-on urgency; if they sound deranged it’s because St Vincent wants you to feel mad, and she succeeds.
‘Pills’ marries the perky, nursery-rhyme catchiness of its chorus with the more troubling, slowed down role-call of the tribes, Clarke included, who depend on a chem, prescribed or otherwise. ‘Sugarboy’ sounds like a peak-period Sparks record that was then given to Madonna and that she had the guts to record; its rubbery and exhausting exuberance will give you a nose bleed. Once you become familiar with the album you’ll notice that the zingy, synth-riff that appears in the second half of ‘Pill’ is actually the same melody used in part of its following track, ‘Los Ageless’. Masseducation is made for repeated listens and rewards the listener as such. The title track comes on like a heightened MIA banger the bridge of which is a repetition of the phrase ‘oh what a bore, to be so adored’; ironic surely, but Annie is now a fully-fledged recipient of such loaded and mass-scale adulation and worship.
This deranged, sugar-pill run of adrenaline assaults comes to a sudden halt with the piano ballad ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, a companion piece to Strange Mercy’s ‘Prince Johnny’. But this is less a celebration of a friendship as before and more the tale of an ending of one (‘Annie, how could you do this me?’). Along with ‘New York’, the first track previewed from Masseducation live last year, these are moments of relative calm and are sad and lovely, but the overly simple melodies of both don’t have the kind of long-lasting effect of many of Clarke’s devastating previous ballads. This drop in pace doesn’t last long and ‘Fear the Future’ and ‘Young Lover’ merge the old Annie with the new and are snarling and visceral, filled with gnarly feedback and guitar riffs that rip open huge, sonic vortexes in the album’s last quarter. Is it still pop music? Well, that’s less clear now.
Whilst ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ and ‘New York’ have a Broadway-light sensibility and fall somewhat short of their intention, the closing tracks of Masseduction are denser, more blood and guts stuff. ‘Slow Disco’ is a soulful, orchestral interrogation of the doppelgänger that tries to wake you up to the life you should be living as opposed to the one you’ve actually constructed. Clarke drops her voice down a few notches to that of a weary, seen-it-all doyenne on the cynically churning, late-night ‘Smoking Section’. But wait, following threats of suicide to punish an unappreciative lover (‘sometimes I stand with a pistol in my hand …..let it happen, let it happen’) she surrenders to hope, love and survival. Well, there’s a turn-up.
More than any of her current contemporaries, St Vincent straddles that space between alternative, singer-songwriter with iconoclastic visuals and that of a global, pop superstar. If she were born a decade or so earlier, then Annie Clarke could have been a Bjork, Bowie or Kate Bush. But pop music is different now and although there are plenty of media megabytes dedicated to her, especially during her recent relationship with supermodel Cara Delevinge, she is the kind of artist that more popular singers will always whisper they wish they were like them. Annie Clarke then has made a fascinating, joyous, sad and deranged record that should sell by the ton and secure her superstar status. But Masseduction is unlikely to do that and that was probably never St Vincent’s goal anyway, and that’s just one of the many reasons as to why she’s different from the rest.