The Student Playlist

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REVIEW: St. Vincent – ‘MASSEDUCTION’ (Loma Vista)

  • 9/10
    - 9/10


‘MASSEDUCTION’ can be read both as St. Vincent being seduced into significant Pop culture relevancy and, conversely, her taking the entire medium of celebrity and Pop and making it work for her. Choosing to interpret it as the latter makes for one of the best and consistent listens of the year.

A thought experiment. Imagine yourself merrily strutting (or depressively trudging, depending on your preference) through Times Square in NYC. Society’s visual embodiment of consumerism. You look up, and in full HD glory on one of the major billboards – St. Vincent. Art-rock cult leader and eccentric avant-garde provocateur herself. Immediately, a sort of discrepancy arises between the a la Bohème image of everything you’re typically used to associating with the artist Annie Clark and the capitalistic grandeur of mass consumption right in front of you.

The billboard markets MASSEDUCTION (a delightfully unsubtle play on the words ‘mass’ and ‘seduction’), the newest in a line of St. Vincent album releases accompanied by Bowie-like image reinventions. You ask yourself whether this a joke, another witticism directed at the mass media, as it certainly wouldn’t be a first one for Clark. Yet, by all accounts, it’s an overt massive billboard. Just one of the parts of a long-running marketing campaign anticipating the release of the album, the cover art of which, in congruence with the title, is an unspecified ass in bright neon pink tights. To rectify the dissonance, you assume that it’s just St. Vincent being St. Vincent, taking her deadpan meta humour and commentary to new heights. Putting on the album afterwards – you base your entire listening experience and interpretation on this presumption. What you hear is one of her best works yet, but also a slight misconception away from being an unnecessary indulgence in modern pop accessibility.

There are many angles from which you can look at and observe everything to do with MASSEDUCTION. You can note the apparent increasing confidence of the artist and penchant for unapologetic directness. From the innocent, doe-eyed look on the cover of her debut Marry Me, to literally sitting on a throne on the cover of her Grammy-winning self-titled album, to the coarse neon-ass shot at hand. In light of this, you can also refer to St. Vincent’s well-documented increasingly sarcastic and bizarre interviews. Like the one where she intimidates a reporter doing a profile of her for The New Yorker. Or the one where she apparently greeted the interviewer and conducted the interview wearing only a plush white robe. Or the one where she in her trademark serious deadpan tells a journalist from Vogue that “all of my songs are about John Mayer”.

Perhaps less amusingly but more insightfully, you can also talk about the album’s place in the pop-culture landscape of 2017. The world post-anaconda’s that don’t want none and post-T-Swift proclaiming that she’s going to be an unapologetic “bad bitch” now. Also, one post-Lemonade and the increasing trend of laying your bare bones on a piece of art for everyone to analyse. For Annie, it’s a world post gracing the covers of tabloids after dating celebrities like Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart and, thus, occupying a weird liminal space between cult avant-garde artist and A-list celebrity. In many ways, MASSEDUCTION feels like it was exactly a product of this space.

When Clarke unveiled her first single of the album, ‘New York’, a lot of people were weirded out by how “normal” the track was. Dumbfounded by the lack of St. Vincent’s signature “The New Hendrix” guitar playing. The single exchanged distorted guitar riffs for a simple piano with some light orchestration. A ballad that fits into the ongoing narrative of lovelorn songs about NYC, in the vein of Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’. It was the most and the least St. Vincent thing to do at the same time. It was releasing a promotional single that was completely radio friendly and completely unlike anything on her most-celebrated release. Yet it also defied all expectations, which by now seems to be an essential part of her image and her personality. In some weird paradox, it was refusing to conform by conforming. Like Schrodinger’s cat, the provocateur was both dead and alive.

Of course, after the second single ‘Los Ageless’ and eventually the whole album was released, it was apparent that St. Vincent was still very much a guitar-first musician. Heavy use of distortion was still a mainstay, though now it was sharing the foreground with programmed drums (some of which were contributed by Sounwave, who’s notable for having worked with Kendrick Lamar), and synthesizers that sound like a re-mastered version of something you’d find on Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine.

The aforementioned second single opens with exactly these simple driving beats and synths. Right up until plunging head-first into a glittery, distorted, and annoyingly catchy chorus. It’s relevant to mention Jack Antonoff here, as his clean-cut production was obviously a huge factor for the song, and the whole album, sounding the way it does. It also fits in neatly with the “St. Vincent is making a Pop album” anomaly, as this is the same ‘ultimate cheerleader’ guy who produced Lorde’s Melodrama and Swift’s edgelord single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’.

Thematically, the song seems to round out the whole East Coast/West Coast thing, this time exploring the whole trope of L.A. superficiality. Kind of an obvious topic, and Clark lyrically touches upon the usual obsession with entertainment and laments about how “the mothers milk their young”. The chorus is kept interestingly vague, however. With Annie singing “How can anybody have you and lose you / And not lose their minds, too?” not making it entirely clear whether she’s speaking about a person, the rush of LA culture, or, in reference to the title, youth.

Truthfully, with all of the performative aspects of the album – the aesthetics, the outfits, the dances, the grandiose production, etc. – little room is left for lyrical subtlety. St. Vincent was never one to hide any of her statements under three layers of metaphors, but, in keeping with ‘Los Ageless’, she tends to really hit you over the head with The Point™ on nearly every cut on the album. ‘Pills’, for instance, traces a period in Clark’s live in coming dangerously close to, you guessed it, addiction to pharmaceuticals. “Pills to wake, pills to sleep / Pills, pills, pills every day of the week” – she sings in a tone fit for advertisement jingles. The juxtaposition of the main subject against the cheery tune is the main attraction of the song, while the lyrics themselves make you feel like the pills themselves are being shoved down your throat. But perhaps that’s the whole point.

Closing out the album is ‘Smoking Section’. It stands somewhere in between calmer cuts on the album like ‘New York’ and ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ and the indulgent bangers like ‘Los Ageless’ or the titular track. Clark’s vocal delivery is exceptional, as she sings, perhaps more personally than ever, about love and suicide. “And sometimes I feel like an inland ocean / Too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction / And when you wander in and start to flail a bit / I let it happen, let it happen, let it happen”. It’s a song where the more you linger on it the harder it hits. Nick Paumgarten in the aforementioned New Yorker article wrote about Clark’s ability to plant something deep inside you without you noticing it: “There’d be times, in the following months, when I’d walk away from a conversation with Clark feeling like a character in a kung-fu movie who emerges from a sword skirmish apparently unscathed yet a moment later starts gushing blood or dropping limbs.” This feeling of something deeply scathing beneath the extravagant surface of it all permeates not only the song, but in a way, the entirety of MASSEDUCTION.

When asked about the title of the album, Clarke noted that it is “a little play on words. Mass seduction, seduction of masses, my seduction. Am I being seduced, or am I the seducer?”. Once again, it puts everything into an uncertain place between subject and object, the artist and the listeners, the counterculture and the masses. MASSEDUCTION can be read both as St. Vincent being seduced into significant Pop culture relevancy and, conversely, her taking the entire medium of celebrity and Pop and making it work for her. Choosing to interpret it as the latter makes for one of the best and consistent listens of the year, and one of the most meta-challenging albums of her career. (9/10) (Ellie Wolf)

Listen to MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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