It’s rare to hear a conversation about St. Vincent, the adopted stage moniker of Annie Clark, without someone comparing her to David Bowie. Let’s put that to rest. Aside from supermodel-dating and unitard-wearing, Clark has created her own world in the five albums leading up to MASSEDUCTION. Both were and are hyper-intelligent musicians, but where Bowie is an alien, Clark is a fierce, elegant cyborg. Her music is evocative, conjuring her predecessors (Bowie included) but covers so much more ground than simply being a reincarnation of the Slim White Duke.
Throughout MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent fans might notice less shredding and scaled back guitar solos, definitive on Clark’s previous albums. But in the context of a pop album, MASSEDUCTION is still rock & roll. A few tracks are noticeably pop, especially those produced by Jack Antonoff, one-third of the trio .fun who also produced much of Taylor Swift’s last album 1989. His presence is felt most on the title track, with a chorus of “I can’t turn off what turns me on” in Swiftian sing-speak. Similarly pop-y is the first track, “Hang on Me,” with a drum machine and synthesized vocals. It is not a complete departure for Clark, feeling authentically St. Vincent, but sets the tone for a slightly more accessible version of herself. “Pills” is a riff on a Philip Glass opera for 2017, with fuzzy guitars and punchy Talking Heads horns. In the first three tracks, it is apparent Clark can be a maestro of her guitar and still kick out the catchy choruses needed for a true pop album.
On “Sugarboy,” Clark leans into pop full-throttle. The certifiable rock star growls, “I am a lot like you,” a sentiment we all know is patently untrue. These moments feel the most Bowie-esque, not musically speaking, but in the human posturing. Clark is special, slightly unreal, a quality shared by Bowie, and they both create moments of claiming an ordinary existence, perhaps ironically. She swaggers back on “Los Ageless,” a sexy song of longing with tantalizing lyrics. Another gossip-provoking track, “Young Lover” similarly hints at her relationship with Cara Delevingne, a high-profile affair that launched Clark directly into the Daily Mail atmosphere. While tempting to extrapolate, it feels unfair to dissect her lyrically. As Clark teases in a series of short videos she created as a faux press junket "All of my work is autobiographical, both the factual elements of my life and the fictional ones.”
“Happy Birthday, Johnny,” “New York,” and the closing track “Smoking Section” are the songs that speak to longtime St. Vincent fans the clearest. “New York” is sweeping, gentle and orchestral, recalling her time as part of Sufjan Stevens’ multi-piece road show. The reoccurring “Johnny”, a character from albums past, a composite of man’s most disappointingly human qualities, haunts Clark again in “Happy Birthday, Johnny.” It is a ballad for a lost soul, where Clark’s twangy guitar nods at her Texas roots. “Smoking Section” is a song that sets Clark apart from the pop world. She talks suicide with drama and theatricality. There is the sly humor of chanting “it’s not the end,” seconds before the album is over. She growls, taking her time on piano, fuzzing feedback, never shying away from creating a truly dark dirge. The vast range of poetic emotion and masterful musical accompaniment is what makes St. Vincent her own star, not simply a planet in the orbit of Bowie and her predecessors.
MASSEDUCTION is not perfect, but “not perfect” for St. Vincent is still miles ahead of the rest. It is a nearly flawless chamber pop album. “Fear the Future” feels slightly misplaced, with its Sleigh Bells gunshot drumbeats. “Slow Disco” is pretty and timid, but slightly forgettable on such powerful record.
However, Clark’s star shines so bright it is tough to take issue with anything. Her voice is violin-like, manic with emotion. Her guitar playing is unparalleled, a Jack White/Prince composite, raised on King Crimson. St. Vincent transcends trends, but incorporates the zeitgeist, one Bowie similarity I feel comfortable allowing. It is appropriately reverential, acknowledging a rock star trait that places her in the company of the greats without overshadowing her unique voice.
Notable Tracks: “Masseduction” | “New York” | “Smoking Section”