Album Review: St. Vincent – Masseduction

“In an age where female artists are still provided fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, acts like St. Vincent are demonstrating why gender inequality and sexism need tackling.”

One thing you can be sure of with St. Vincent is that she’ll never follow a conventional path. There are, it’s fair, few like Annie Clark. Whether decked in lipstick and heels or as her modest, natural self, Clark transforms into a different person between albums. 2007’s ‘Marry Me’ introduced us to a wide-eyed, au naturel figure; latest album Masseduction seems a completely different Clark, her leotard-clad back facing the camera within a red room. It’s cryptic, it’s strange – and it’s a huge, decade-long leap that shows Clark’s growth in both confidence and uniqueness. 

Masseduction was produced by Clark and Jack Antonoff at Manhattan’s Electric Lady Studios – and is the culmination of years of scribblings, text messages and voice memos that was collated when Clark was traveling the world and recording thoughts as she went. The record assesses power and sex – those imperiled relationships that we’re are familiar with – with a smattering of death and the quirky mixed in for good measure. Sound-wise, there’s pianos and guitars alongside new-wave, ambient rock and straight-up pop elements.

Few can say, looking at St. Vincent’s album chronology, that there’s been diminishing returns since her debut. The standard has increased; few would have expected the immense power of her eponymous 2014 record. Those songs featured contorted beats and stylish sounds; ornery and openness; heartbreaking confessions and the most intoxicating music the world witnessed that year. Such a run of wonderful music must stop at some point. Right?

Eyes and ears were pricked when Masseduction was announced. Everything from the promotion and images released showed Clark at her most evocative. That could put many off – but listening to already-released singles ‘New York’ and ‘Los Ageless’ (among the eight of thirteen tracks Clark wrote on her own), those fears were unwarranted. The songs on Masseduction are not huge departures in terms of sound and vision, but the lyrical bent is different. A broader emotional spectrum is employed, and the quality at a near-career-best level. ‘New York’ and ‘Los Ageless’ are great songs – but, in terms of the rest of the record, do pale somewhat.

‘Hang on Me’ is the opener, filled with cryptic lyrics and hornet-buzz beats. Bonded by a certain separation – “You and me/were not meant for this world” – the heroine conveys a sense of isolation with a lo-fi vocals, fizzing beats and aching background strings. It’s an emotive performance where St. Vincent keeps things economic but provides memorability.

‘Pills’, one of the album’s co-writes, is funkier – a pop gem that mixes the 1980s flair of Madonna with the modern-day sound of, well…St. Vincent. Our heroine needs pills to wake, whether illegal, recreational or prescribed. It’s is a singalong song where raucous guitars heighten the sense of lacking inhibitions and drug-addled dances. The contrast of the chorus – where the vocal is delivered like an X-rated Disney song and the verse – less harmonic and more spiked – gives the song a sense of dizziness. If anything, it lasts a little longer than it needs to – but that’s the only minor flaw.

‘Los Ageless’ and ‘New York’ are out there and, whilst solid tracks, are among the less impressive cuts. ‘Sugarboy’, on the other hand, has the same skittishness as ‘Pills’, and goes from hushed vocals to choral chorusing, pulling your senses and leaving you breathless as it rushes and pummels. ‘Savior’ provides some calm as the album passes the half-way mark. It sees St. Vincent dressed in a nurse’s outfit, embarking on a series of role-playing scenarios. The sweat drips from the tongue but Clark is not the man’s mother; she cannot save him and he needs to get a head-check, it seems.

‘Young Lover’ looks at the subject in a bathtub with their clothes on, in a scene of chaos and longing; the heroine misses the taste of the lover and wishes love was enough. ‘Slow Disco’ and ‘Smoking Section’ are perfect ways to end Masseduction, and among St. Vincent’s best modern-day tracks.

I was reluctant to proclaim Masseduction following the single releases – but digging into the remaining tracks has changed my mind. Whilst not quite as good as St. Vincent, it’s still among her finest work. Extraordinary invention and confidence reigns; the lyrics are compelling and vivid. It’s another step forward from an individual whose role cannot be understated. Masseduction is a terrific achievement and a record that demands your full attention. Ignore and underrate it at your peril.