As St. Vincent racks up the pop star bona fides, she continues to make inward-looking music and, with MASSEDUCTION, she’s also challenging her own sound. Ben Hewitt peers into this new world – produced by Lorde and Taylor Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff – and sees that St. Vincent’s color palette may have changed, but her shattering vulnerability remains the same.
St. Vincent’s 2014 self-titled album opened with the fraught, frantic ‘Rattlesnake’, the story of how she shed all her clothes and went wandering in the desert. It felt like a strange, sci-fi retelling of Genesis, her own warped creation myth: a lone figure stuttering in a sandy wilderness, Eden’s greenery replaced by fizzing power lines, with only a snake for company. Free to reinvent herself from scratch, the songs that followed explored how identity is forged and fractured in the digital age.
What St. Vincent, née Annie Clark, probably hadn’t predicted, four albums into her career, is that one of those new identities could be bona fide pop star – the sort who stars in Tiffany adverts and has high-profile romantic relationships making her ripe for tabloid fodder. The promotion for her new album MASSEDUCTION saw her leaning into fame’s weird artifice with provocative hijinks, like the hyper-stylized mock interview videos she constructed with fellow indie beacon-turned-pop culture figure Carrie Brownstein.
But, according to Clark, obfuscation is the last thing on her mind: “I’m telling you everything,” she told BuzzFeed earlier this year, promising an album that has both commanding allure and unbearable vulnerability. With St. Vincent, Clark suggests that self-definition is never a clean process and the theme carries over to MASSEDUCTION. The album allows knotty contradictions to coexist, flitting between grubby, disco-tinged thumpers and brittle ballads; sad truths spill out of every song.
The biting ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, which buries its grim story underneath sweet piano, revisits the glamorous fuck-up she sang about on ‘Prince Johnny’. When he begs for money and she refuses, he calls her a phony: “You saw me on magazines and TV / But if they only knew the real version of me / Only you know the secrets, the swamp and the fear.” But she doesn’t call bullshit on his hysterics, and there’s a sense that the guilt she feels at turning him down weighs heavy because she knows that they once weren’t so different.
Clark is equally gifted at destroying herself, destroying others and being destroyed by them. The skittish, surreal daydream of ‘Pills’ finds her self-medicating for succour with a manically cheerful jingle of a hook – “pills, pills, pills for the family” – voiced by model Cara Delevingne, Clark’s former paramour, like she’s plastered with a rictus grin in a cheesy commercial. But on ‘Young Lover’, which lurches from the tense, thudding beat of the verse into the chorus’s explosion of serrated guitars, Clark is a horrified onlooker in someone else’s drug hell, watching her companion slumped on the floor: “I heard the robins and thought they were sirens,” she remembers, bringing an ugly scene to life with a dark poetic flourish. “Wake up young lover, I thought you were dyin’.”
For Clark, relationships ripple often with violent drama (“You and me, we’re not meant for this world,” she insists over the wobbling synths and crushing intensity of ‘Hang On Me’) and self-destruction (“I can’t turn off what turns me on,” she shrieks on the title track). Entanglements have complicated power-plays with hankering for the upper hand. On the sultry ‘Savior’, Clark dresses as in fetish outfits to satisfy her lover’s kinks. “None of this shit fits,” she grumbles over funky guitar licks and bitty beats; when she purrs “But then you say ‘Please’”, her stance seemingly shifted, it’s unclear what’s appeased her – the glow of being appreciated, or the glee of being in control.
‘Sugarboy’, with a throbbing disco pulse that sounds like a corrupted version of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, finds Clark reimagining the future-cult leader of ‘St Vincent’ as a delirious cyberqueen trying to obliterate herself and dominate others (“Sugargirl, dissolve in me”). But if the highs of victory are dizzying, the lows are torture: the woozily nightmarish sounds of ‘Smoking Section’ find her playing emotional chicken. “Sometimes I go to the edge of my roof / And think I’ll jump just to punish you,” she threatens.
Nowhere is that idea of desire becoming diseased more unsettling than on the twisted guitars and sleazy electronics of ‘Los Ageless’, which turns LA into a devil’s playground where “mothers milk their young” and trapped pleasure-seekers turn into monsters. “How can anybody have you and lose you / And not lose their mind, too?” gabbers Clark over the chorus’ spooky wailing synth, as if trying to escape from a horror film. And yet as she admits at the end, she’s already infected: “I try to tell you I love you, but it comes out all sick.”
The quieter moments feel even more arresting. The simple piano of ‘New York’ is a bittersweet meditation on ghosts and old haunts sung by a narrator unmoored by change, lost and adrift. When the chorus blooms into life with a rush of soft, swooning strings, Clark is determined to find pearls among the wreckage: “But for you, my darling / I’d do it all again.” There is a similar tone to ‘Slow Disco’ with Clark singing, “There’s blood in my ears / And a fool in the mirror / And the pain of mistakes couldn’t get any clearer” in an unnervingly low and fragile voice. The lyrics summon the courage to leave before things get worse on an album full of characters unable to stop themselves from ruining the people close to them. It sounds like a kindness, but it is shattering.
MASSEDUCTION takes the themes Clark has been chewing on for the last 10 years and, now with more eyes on her than ever before, makes them throb in new, startling ways. “I heard the tales, fortune and blame / Tigers and wolves defanged by fame,” she frets on ‘Pills’, but she’s more like that rattlesnake she heard in the desert, or even the original serpent: slippery, dangerous and prone to telling you dark, dangerous things you can’t shake off.
Ben Hewitt is on Twitter.