How do you describe a St. Vincent album? Art-pop is too pretentious, but her work is infinitely more elegant than your average indie rock. Perhaps her own words describe it best: “I (attempt to) put something beautiful next to something off-putting,” she states in an interview with MAKER. “That seems to get me more excited than just something that’s pretty, or just something that’s harsh.”
In her decade-long career, singer/songwriter Annie Clark has been labeled everything from indie darling to critic’s pet, talentless fraud to the female Bowie. She’s been featured in Portlandia, collaborated with David Byrne, toured with Sufjan Stevens and co-wrote with Bon Iver; if one thing is certain about Annie Clark, it’s that she’s experienced all that the world of indie has to offer. On MASSEDUCTION, she uses that experience to mold an intricate and complete world of her own, taking queues from both contemporary pop and the old-guards of art rock. Odd instrumentation clashes with marketable melodies, vividly animating Clark’s lyrics into something grander than itself.
The best parody can only come from experience; as such, MASSEDUCTION tells viciously anti-pop stories in a way that only pop can. The album offers a meta and competent look into the cultural workings of St. Vincent, but the acidic tone of an artist’s jaded take on popular culture is balanced both by touching ballads and anecdotal connection. At a glance, “Pills” is just what you’d expect of an art rocker–a sing-song, nursery rhyme melody that condescendingly tackles self medication in the 2010’s. Sans-context, the song works–it’s just so 2011. Post-context, however, “Pills” transforms from another faux-intelligent anthem feigning complexity into a touching and revealing critique of self. This intricacy of duality is scattered throughout MASSEDUCTION, and melds Clark’s traditionally inaccessible world of artiste with the grounded reality of human condition. In this marriage of the jaded and the universal lies the essentiality of MASSEDUCTION–St. Vincent has managed to master both.
Behind the fuzz-infused riffs and midi melodies, glimpses of this Annie had always been teased. However, her persona had always occupied two distinct spaces: the critique, and the personal. 2013’s St. Vincent was a phenomenal example of this; “Digital Witness” combined a chilling brass synth with an equally cold interpretation of media consumption that mirrored the worst of Banksy. Somehow, less than 10 years into the age of social media, “If I can’t show it and you can’t see it, what’s the point of doing anything?” is a critique more tired than its elderly pedalers. “Digital Witness”’s phenomenal craft saved it, but a lurking sense of pretense kept it from greatness. Compare it to “Rattlesnake” of the same album–an intensely specific anecdote-turned-metaphor with similar issues. Talent has never been Clark’s issue; perhaps unintentional, but problematic nonetheless, an assumed vapid elitism has shrouded the St. Vincent catalogue since the beginning. For proof of this, look no further than the reception to her interviews; “Stupid coloured hair? Check. Obnoxious glasses? Check. Desperately trying to be artsy? Check.”- A commenter on Pitchfork’s over/under feature. “For some reason she just pisses me off,” decries Nolan Nuanes on Clark’s Guitar Moves episode.
MASSEDUCTION solves this aura of pretentiousness in the best way possible; meaning, it doesn’t solve it at all. Backlash at Clark has always been misguided; her work was never really too intimidating or pretentious. Rather, audiences couldn’t relate to the calculating ego surrounding the music of St. Vincent, and decided (justly) that the onus was on the artist to create that relation. MASSEDUCTION doesn’t change the St. Vincent format; It changes its perception. The release of “New York” as the album’s premiere single is no coincidence. It’s a genuinely near perfect ballad–grounded, yet grandiose, inspiring, yet exasperated. It plays to Clarke’s strengths as both a composer and storyteller, and though it lacks in classic St. Vincent oddity, it serves as the perfect entry point. It’s familiar, it’s beautiful, and it’s sincere. It’s also not a fluke. “Smoking Section” rivals “New York’s” investment and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” surpasses its sincerity. These ballads serve not only as exceptional cuts, but asa shift of frame; away from Clark’s inaccessibility, and towards her talent.
Despite the change in context, however, the auteur still thrives. The grounding of persona does not impede upon MASSEDUCTION’s promise of artsy indulgence. “Hang On Me,” the aforementioned “Pills,” and “Sugar Boy” fulfill the St. Vincent legacy of heavy synth and signature apocalypse-prepared-pop; albeit prepared for a slightly less drab apocalypse this time around. “Los Ageless” sees Clark return emphasis to her infamous fuzz pedal, and “Young Lover” deals in the anxiety surrounding a drug addicted partner with utmost jolliness. Musically, Clark is at her best since 2011’s Strange Mercy, opting to embrace an upbeat composition in comparison to her usual slow-burning tension builders.
MASSEDUCTION is a phenomenal bridge between two oft conflicting worlds, and achieves every rockstar’s fantasy: mass appeal without loss of substance. Through effortless connection and premiere craft, St. Vincent’s identity as an icon not only remains intact, but evolves; On MASSEDUCTION, Annie Clark transcends the consciousness of reputation.