by Kara Kokinos
[three_fourth]The singles from St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION function much like a Hollywood trailer, in that they give away most of the good stuff and leave us to sit through the rest of the shit when we sit down with the entire thing.
I was so excited at the album’s opening track. Although there’s nothing particularly special about ‘Hang On Me’ on its own, I expected that it was setting the tone for the rest of the album. The song has St. Vincent’s trademark voice breaks that peak out through the rest of the heavily produced track, letting the song’s message of heartbreak come to the surface. But as soon as I am in, I am pulled right back out as the transition into ‘Pills’ begins, and I am left questioning what on earth I’m listening to.
‘Pills’ is… fine, I guess? The last single to be announced features backing from Jenny Lewis and Annie Clark’s ex-girlfriend Cara Delevigne. Substance abuse is a subject that Delevigne is all too familiar with, and I was shocked to hear that she lent her voice to such a sing-song ode to the destructive force of drugs. I know a fair few listeners who think this song is the album’s low point, and they aren’t necessarily wrong. Despite subject matter and lyrical content that could actually say something, the production does absolutely nothing for the song. It feels like St. Vincent & Co. took some pills and churned this out. Maybe that’s the point, but I wanted to be hit with something a bit more complex, or at least have some moment of heart wrenching realization at the end. It seems like this is supposed to happen in its bridge, but this track didn’t elicit my empathy in any regard. Even the guitar and saxophone wailing away in the background just serve to make more annoyed at the beginning of ‘Masseduction’ introducing more electropop elements so quickly.
Me when I found out Cara Delevigne sings on the chorus of “Pills”: “Annie Clark is such an air sign WOW”
— Christine Varriale (@certaintragedy) October 14, 2017
Despite the awkward transition back into the up-tempo, ‘Masseduction’ is a strong, poppy display. This is where the album feels the most like a follow-up to 2015’s eponymous release while executing the pop feel that Clark and her team were going for. While the song has some of the album’s more complex verses, we’ve heard the chorus before on Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations.
And then there was ‘Sugarboy.’
I’m still not sure why I was being forced to listen to that garbage fire. Glitch pop has been done before, and it’s been done far better. There’s so many opportunities for large moments within this song, but they only go halfway there before backing away. I’m not sure where the risk is on this track. Also note that the echoing refrain of “Boys! Girls!” was just done with “mass seduction” and “mass destruction” on the previous track – thematically I’m here for it, but not in back to back songs.
Attempting to erase that last abomination from my mind, I am let back into the sonic world of St. Vincent with ‘Lose Ageless.’ The trademark St. Vincent use of minimal backing and layered vocals placed directly over fuzzy guitars that echo her vocal tone are BACK. This and the following track demonstrate Clark in her element while doing a more pop sound.
The ballads are the strongest moments on MASSEDUCTION, despite their disparate sound from the titular track. The return of the character Johnny is marked by the end of Clark’s relationship with Delevigne – despite Clark’s privacy surrounding her relationship with the mega-celebrity, this track lets us into the mourning of its demise. Specific references to Delevigne are scattered through the album, specifically ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny,’ but there’s a lot of responsibility taken on by Clark. It’s crushing and potent, and I wish I could dwell in this song and feeling for the full album. Luckily I get that again in ‘New York.’
The singles ‘New York’ and ‘Los Ageless’ had set us up for a perfect, coastal journey with Clark touring us around her favorite haunts. ‘New York’ is a heart-wrenching, sparse, piano driven ballad that had me crying at first listen. It dwells in the same space as ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ in that it is reflective and more sour than the bitter aftertaste left in your mouth by ‘Los Ageless.’ They separate the album into two sounds, occasionally melding together, especially in ‘Savior’ and ‘Fear The Future.’ It is of note that the former is a kink track (!) and while it’s not the strongest song on the album – and I wouldn’t go as far to say that it functions well as a bridge between two of the more sentimental moments – ‘Savior’ gets a lot right. It’s fun and flirty with a slightly devious edge.
The amount of guitar driven tracks on MASSEDUCTION is slightly criminal given the fact that Clark is one of the most esteemed guitarists alive, so the riffs that open up ‘Fear The Future’ felt like a sigh of relief. This track is still driven largely by a drum kit, but the guitar elements are executed with a light hand, and perfectly distorted in order to accentuate or blur moments in the composition.
‘Young Lover’ depressed me; not because it’s a depressing tune, which this album abounds in, but because it is soulless. Jack Antonoff’s influence can be felt all over this album, but I’d say that this song best demonstrates the discord he has introduced. What should be guitar based and gnarly becomes synthesized and poppy. I don’t believe rock lives in a sphere that should be above or untouchable by pop and electronic elements, but this is where the album drops any guise of being a rock endeavor. Clark’s low range could have brought in to add grit anywhere on this track or a guitar solo introduced to make it into what fans have adored about her work. Anything to show us some damn teeth; instead we get veneers. But this was always meant to be a pop album, and a pop album is what you get. R.I.P St. Vincent, guitar goddess of our dreams, you will be missed.
Strings send off the Holy Ghost in ‘Dancing With A Ghost,’ a transition piece that serves as an intro to a (literally) broken ballad that would be a highlight on any album that wasn’t packed with them. Perhaps this is because ‘Slow Disco’ could have been executed by any number of vocalists. I don’t hear anything characteristically St. Vincent on this albeit gorgeous arrangement and execution. Even the lyrics don’t pack the punch or contain the coded language that you associate with the artist. An overtly radio friendly track is the strangest thing to encounter on a St. Vincent album, but here it is, in all its sparkly glory.
We have another example of somewhat lackluster songwriting to close out what was supposed to be my favorite album of 2017. One more ballad takes us out; this one has interesting harmonies interspersed, distortion built in, and more heart in its delivery, but something isn’t clicking. On its own ‘Smoking Section’ could have me bawling, but placed at the end of MASSEDUCTION, it feels like Clark has lost her will, which would be heartbreaking if the album and I hadn’t stopped caring a few tracks ago.
Fuck: ‘Masseduction,’ ‘Savior,’ ‘Fear The Future’
Marry: ‘Los Ageless,’ ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny, ’New York’
Kill: ‘Pills,’ ‘Sugarboy’