Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St Vincent, has always been weird. Debut album Marry Me saw her wide-eyed and sweet but vaguely psychotic, and since then her music has only got darker, stranger. After a collaboration with David Byrne of the perennially eccentric Talking Heads, Clark’s fourth, self-titled, album represented a dramatic shift in style. The music was bigger, brasher and more electronic, and her aesthetic could only be described as vaguely cultish. This release is arguably her strangest yet; from the provocative artwork to the playful mock-interview segments posted on Instagram, listeners were prepared for a distinctly St Vincent experience before hearing a second of music. Make no mistake about it, the publicity didn’t lie. The thirteen tracks here cover a massive range of genre and theme that would seem unfocused if it weren’t so committed, and if it weren’t for what purely labelling the album as “weird” would miss: heart.
In interviews, Clark has called title track Masseduction a “manifesto” for the album as a whole:
“Don’t turn off what turns me on.”
The provocative artwork is somewhat misleading here. Yes, sexuality is integral to this lyric and to the album as a whole, but it is not just a sexual statement. Rather, it is a celebration of weirdness in Clark’s music and life in general. The track opens with a chanted Japanese sample (“Seiken no fuhai” – “Power corrupts”), and features the robotic mantra, “Mass seduction, mass destruction”, shredded guitar solos, weird squealing sounds, and about a hundred other elements that shouldn’t fit together this wonderfully. It references hair dye, Nick Cave, and punk rock. On top of all this, it’s catchy as hell. Despite the chaos, Clark’s vocals are given plenty of room at the top of the mix: she growls and yelps with a ferocity and precision that is powerful and sexual and emotive, a combination that crops up throughout the album.
This is one of St Vincent’s true strengths. From her debut to now, every album has contained some stunning vocal performances that elevate the already complex lyrics to new heights. Take the chorus of Sugarboy, for example: as she growls the words “I am a lot like you, I am alone like you” at the very lowest edge of her register, you can truly hear the desperation in her voice. By the end of the track, this desperation is almost drowned out by an explosion of noise, synthesisers and drum machines and the constant refrain of “Boys! Girls!” and bass that eventually swallows the track whole. One of the central themes of the album is the conflicting joy and despair we take from pop culture, addressed perfectly in this mess.
This need for escapism occurs throughout the album: through drugs in Pills (a commercial jingle with a jarring and brilliant prog-inspired coda), through sex in Saviour and Fear the Future, through moving home in New York. As you listen to this album over and over again (something the endless hooks and pristine, layered production makes very easy), you begin to sense that this is the driving force between Clark’s tireless energy. Although it sounds like a paradox, this most uptempo St Vincent album is arguably her saddest yet. In fact, where the album falters somewhat is in some of its slower offerings.
First single New York and standout Happy Birthday, Johnny are both excellent tracks. The former is a simple and tender ballad with lyrics to match (“New love wasn’t true love, back to you love. So much for a home run with some blue bloods”), propelled by a thrilling pulse that grows throughout. Happy Birthday, Johnny feels almost out of place sandwiched between two loud, aggressive tracks, but benefits all the more for it. The story it tells is touching, Clark’s voice beautiful. Its swelling, lap steel interlude, with drooping synths and subtle strings, is an emotional high point, as is the startling lyric, “Of course I blame me. When you get free Johnny, I hope you find peace.”
However, the final two tracks see the album stumbling to a conclusion. On Slow Disco, Jack Antonoff’s production crosses the line from polished pop into kitsch, his string arrangements (almost ripped straight from Coldplay’s catalogue) leaving no room for subtlety. Closing track Smoking Section once again reaches too hard for an emotional sucker-punch, but its lyrics are too blunt, its melody too uninteresting. When this album hits its messy stride, it seems unstoppable, and it’s a shame for the final impression to be so dour and simplistic after such a complex tangle of sounds and emotions. Don’t let that detract from the overall experience, however: this is a wonderful and above all else singular experience from a woman who can seemingly do no wrong.