St. Vincent – Masseduction

This fifth solo album from Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is probably her most hotly anticipated yet. Her last, self-titled, album came as a bit of a breakthrough for her, although that term ‘breakthrough’ tends to disregard the build-up. After the St. Vincent album came out in 2014 she was able to head out on a massive world tour, playing more dates in larger venues than ever before, but this wouldn’t have been possible without the profile-raising albums that proceeded it. Her collaboration with Talking Heads front-man David Byrne in 2012, Love This Giant, must have brought her new followers but, even more than that, the crystallisation of ideas that occur on her third album, Strange Mercy, played a massive part in establishing Annie as the star she is now. She’s a star with a very specific set of art-rock credentials that put her in a very enviable category. It’s cool, it’s fresh and, ultimately, it’s music as art that is intellectual, expressive, experimental and popular.

I first got interested in her work with Strange Mercy, and from there I went backwards and listened to her earliest records which I fell in love with. The single ‘Digital Witness’, from her last album, was a real eye-opening ear-worm, but the heavily bombastic production style of that album didn’t enchant me as much as some of the more ethereal and sparser cuts from that earlier work. When the first teaser single for Masseduction was released I was extremely excited for the record: ‘New York’ is a beautiful piece of music. It’s slight, beautiful and filled with sorrow, it’s a love song for a lost lover and the city. There’s the electronic pulse of the digital bassline, married to gorgeous vocals, soaring strings and slight piano. It reaches backwards and forwards through time simultaneously, to classic jazz-infused pop and cutting-edge synth-soaked electronica. It spoke to me as the album I was looking for Annie to make: one that reconciles the magic of her early records with the slick slink of the latest, crowd-pleasing material. I have not been disappointed.

Masseduction really seems to be an album of two-halves, with the first half tending towards the more upbeat and more in your face songs, leading to a second half that’s a little more sombre and contemplative – but that’s only speaking in very broad strokes. After the extensive touring for St. Vincent, Annie evidently suffered a little from anxiety and depression, leading to her seeking prescription medication for a period in order to get back to being herself. This story rears its head on the second track, ‘Pills’, which has a manic energy to it, with pills being used to make every activity possible: ‘Pills to wake/pills to sleep/pills, pills, pills every day of the week’, perhaps also forming a commentary on the big-pharma culture of modern America. The greatest moment on this track though foreshadows the second-half, when the groove drops to half-time and a descending melody that sounds like something Hunky Dory-era Bowie might have conjured up, especially when Kamasi Washington’s sax, which has been playing syncopated grooves for most of the song, starts a deep, wailing solo. The title track sounds, like much of this first half, like it’s carrying more than a little Prince influence to it. I would twin it with ‘Savior’ from the second half, but maybe it’s just because both of these songs sound so damned sexy.

There are moments that could have been missteps, and maybe they are, but at this stage I’m so sold on Annie’s music that everything seems to work gloriously to my ears. I can see how ‘Los Ageless’ has musical and production elements that remind me of the marmite that is Muse and, similarly, ‘Young Lover’s huge guitar-scapes and big pop production lend it a late U2 air – although I’d say there’s more substance beneath the sheen here. Perhaps this contemporary stadium rock vibe isn’t surprising when we consider she’s going to be pitching this music to ever larger auditoriums – the big stages and big crowds bring a certain expectation of grandiose sound. Also, it must be noted that the production team on this record boasts names like Jack Antonoff, whose credits include acts like Taylor Swift and Lorde. This album has certainly been produced for a mass market, but maybe I'd suggest that Annie's motivations go beyond seducing a larger audience, there's subversion and innovation at work here. St. Vincent's approach to seduction loses her none of her credibility and, perhaps, by bringing a little of the avant garde into the foreground she's performing an act of mass-education.  As a collection of songs this is probably her most consistent to date. Strong melodies reign throughout, with lyrics that are full of clever phrasing and observations. When she gets contemplative on tracks like ‘Slow Disco’, ‘Smoking Section’ and my personal favourite, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, she cuts right to the core. This means that, for me at least, the slightest tracks are the biggest hitters here – which makes it all the more exciting that prolific Annie has apparently recorded a second version of the whole album, stripped back to mostly voice and piano.

As wonderful as the production on this album is and as promising a stab at major mainstream success as it represents for one of my favourite modern artists, the miserabilist in me can’t help but be excited for this forthcoming alternate version. For all the production in the world, and all the genius guitar-playing from her fingers, can’t come close to the magic and emotion that Annie’s voice is able to express for me. She’s one of the most exciting artists around, pushing so many boundaries, combining so many disparate things but, at the end of the day, it’s that purity of voice that it all boils down to, and Masseduction represents the finest distillation yet.

Adam Kidd