St. Vincent’s ‘Masseduction’ Is a Pop Journey Into the Impossibility of Perfection

Annie Clark, indie-rocker extraordinaire, has returned with a new album, a new haircut and a new persona: dominatrix at the mental institution.

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Annie Clark, indie-rocker extraordinaire, has returned with a new album, a new haircut and a new persona: dominatrix at the mental institution.

"Masseduction, St. Vincent's fifth album, combines electronic beats with electrifying guitar work and poignant, pleading vocals (Image via NME)

Across ten years, Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, has established a strong, rich discography, with each of her albums demonstrating a clear progression and knack for in innovation, without sacrificing any of Clark’s technical skill and ear for melody. In addition, each work has had a specific conceptual take that has avoided the pitfalls of prosaism. In an interview with iD, Clark herself sums them up neatly: housewife on pills for “Strange Mercy,” beauty and the beast for “Love This Giant” and near-future cult leader for her self-titled release. What is “Masseduction,” then? Dominatrix at the mental institution.

In the music videos for her singles “New York” and “Los Ageless,” Clark embodies her archetype by wrapping herself in slick latex dresses and gloves and taming her curls into a neat bob. The world she inhabits—domestic and robotic, but not without flair—has been built for her and her alone. “New York” is consumed by the feelings of loneliness and abandonment, but Clark’s face is expressionless; the crisp sound of the piano echoes in an empty chamber, disturbing no one. “Los Ageless,” on the other hand, rears to life with a screeching synth, cutting to a smirking Clark surrounded by her nurses, wrapped in gauze lingerie, crooning “But I can keep running / No, I can keep running.”

As different as the vibes of the songs may be, there is no doubt that they stem from the same creator. Clark has always been able to create a unified sound, from the twisted twee of “Marry Me” to the muscular, sludgy guitar of “Strange Mercy.” “Masseduction” delivers, too, if not in the way that listeners may expect. The compositions are more streamlined and contained than other releases, scaling back the extravagance of sound that has characterized some of her other releases. Clark restrains herself, which makes for fewer lines of chorus that repeat more frequent and briefer outros. If this were a release by a different artist, “Masseduction” would be labeled as emphasizing style over substance. Clark, however, is an artist that is cerebral and thoughtful. The pop exterior is not without intention.

The album opens with “Hang On Me,” a synth ballad with pining cries to a lover, in which Clark drunkenly calls a lover describing scenes of an apocalypse. The only way out is together: “‘Cause you and me / We’re not meant for this world.” The track is a peek into the personality of the album: unstable, bargaining and troubled. The escape from “this world” is the body of the rest of album. It’s a slow and spare opener to the front-heavy energy of the album, which begins with “Pills.” Featuring ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne and Jenny Lewis, “Pills” is a spiraling, dizzy jangle with a catchy chorus. The pills are for everything—eating, sleeping, thinking, fucking— and the speaker’s dependence on them isn’t scrutinized. Instead, the conditions that led Clark to the medications are the ones being examined. Clark is entirely overwhelmed by the hurriedness of fame: “I can’t even swim in these waves I’ve made / From the bath to the drain, and the plane to the stage / From the bed, to give head, to the money I made.”

“Pills” sets up the circumstances for the following track, “Masseduction.” The rallying cry of the entire album, as Clark herself says, is repeated in the chorus: “I can’t turn off what turns me on.” The figuration of these words and their connotations hinges on some ambiguity. Most obviously, the “[turning] on” oozes sexuality, and the speaker’s inability to stifle their libido. In another, broader sense, the verse refers to unimpeded stimulation that you can’t process all at once. Following suit, the verses in “Masseduction” are delivered start-stop, with references to Charles Mingus, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Manic Panic hair dye and Nick Cave’s “The Boatman’s Call.”

The flurries of information spiral into “Sugarboy,” another song that is ostensibly sexual. Clark plays with the notions of gender, toying with the power struggle inherent in the division between the genders. The chorus echoes “I am a lot like you (Boys) / I am alone like you (Girls)” which breaks down into a call-and-reply feedback loop that distorts any meaning. Is the speaker alone like boys or like girls? Is the speaker more similar to boys or girls? It’s evident that Clark is working at dismantling the binary, perhaps attempting to synthesize the two genders, but the struggle is never resolved. As the outro continues the call-and-reply of “boys” and “girls,” Clark leaves more questions than answers.

After “Sugarboy” is “Los Ageless,” and then comes “Happy Birthday, Johnny.” For those familiar with St. Vincent’s discography, the “Johnny” figure also appears in “Marry Me” and “St. Vincent.” On “Masseduction,” the track is deeply reminiscent of “Marry Me,” a stripped-down piano ballad concerned with the struggles of love. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is a patient interlude in between the album’s energy in the first half, which is not rivaled by the second. “Savior” begins afterwards, with a kooky, plucking guitar hook. The track is the only one on the album that most clearly interacts with the dominatrix image, as Clark lists various BDSM costumes and what she will do for you. She eventually delves into the impossibility of sex as a panacea: “Honey, I can’t be your savior.”

Following “Savior” are two weaker tracks on the album, “Fear The Future” and “Young Lover,” where Clark dips a little too far into pop without counteracting the cliché. “Fear The Future” is exactly as it sounds, full of typical scenes of the apocalypse. “Young Lover” features Clark handling the addiction of her partner, in which she struggles to maintain the relationship between them. Both songs feature a heavy, dredging guitar, which acts as a break in sonic tone of the album.

Thankfully, Clark slows down with a brief interlude, “Dancing With A Ghost,” which is a return to the lightness and digestibility of the tracks at the front end of the album. “Slow Disco” comes next, which is an orchestral arrangement that serves as a come-down from the rest of “Masseduction.” The track is not a standout, by any means, but offers one good line: “I’m so glad I came, but I can’t wait to leave.” In a narrow sense, the phrase can express the exhaustion of stardom and touring, but in a broader sense, it can be taken as an admission of the pleasure of solitude. Being social is exhausting.

Finally, “Smoking Section” rounds out the album. Clark’s voice grumbles as she explains scenes of two lovers testing their devotion to one another. Slow, minor-keyed piano builds with beats and synth into a tense explosion, before resolving itself into a major-key solution, as Clark chokes out the words “It’s not the end“ before “Masseduction” fades out on a low, somber piano chord.

Overall, “Masseduction” is another solid release in Clark’s discography. The imagery, musicianship and creativity are on par for what you would expect from her, even if the album lacks some cohesion. From the front end of the work, “Masseduction” seems to be about the quest for freedom and some sort of bionic state. “Hang On Me” and “Pills” work together to create a vision of a person who is reliable and unstoppable. However, both tracks hint at the unsustainable nature of such a person, but that notion isn’t established until after “Savior.”

“Masseduction” and “Sugarboy” both infuse the speaker with a strong sexual energy, a figure that is ever-aware and even genderless. The delusional belief that one could contain so much energy is strengthened by the chorus of “Los Ageless” (“I can keep running”) and is not dispelled until the revelation in “Savior.” Since the core mission of the album is resolved by track seven, the other six tracks, which are not in perfect sonic unity, confound the listener. While each does contain some strange, powerful beauty, their necessity on the album comes into question. While Clark is an Artist with a capital A, not all her work is transcendent. “Masseduction” ranks lower across her six albums.

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