St. Vincent proves technical prowess in Masseduction

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Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent, has earned status as a pop rock icon not just because she’s collaborated with rockstar legends Kurt Cobain and David Byrne, or because she at times sounds like a spiritual manifestation of Prince or David Bowie, but because she is the St. Vincent. Her fifth studio album, Masseduction, is one of the few albums I would forcibly sit someone down to listen to and is my top contender for album of the year thus far.

St. Vincent is one of the few pop artists who wields absolute control over every aspect of the album-making process. There’s simply no need for her to be propped up by an assembly line of songwriters and producers, because even music industry veterans know not to undercut her extraordinary expertise — one which has produced the most infectious, without being over-the-top, and emotional, without being (totally) melancholy, albums I’ve heard this year.

She demonstrates a remarkable curatorial instinct, able to pull together an album that cohesively blends a range of genres such as new-wave disco-tech, chamber pop and psychedelic rock, all without a single clumsy track. This album is packed with an insufferable tension as she captures themes of existential anxiety, unapologetic hedonism, shattering heartbreak, looming mortality and adolescent fantasies. While each track serves as fragments to a larger narrative context, they each unravel their own complex world.

The album begins with Clark ruminating about a past volatile romance as she explores the more tragic aspects of love, drawing allusions to wreckage and disasters such as a plane crash and taxicab accident on “Hang on Me.” She does that beautiful thing where it sounds like the damper pedal is put down over her voice, backed by luxuriously smooth electric guitar sounds.

The next track, “Pills,” is perhaps the most conceptually interesting on the album. The track begins hurtling toward a frantic, techno pace that accompanies an eerie, looped chant that sounds like what you would hear as the anthem to a dystopian regime. It’s broken down by a Kamasi Washington saxophone section before slowing down toward one of my favorite parts of the album, an invigorating comedown that is reminiscent of the outro of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as she sings the powerful lyrics “come all you wasted, wretched and scorned” and “everyone you love will all go away.”

The title track “Masseduction,” stylistically reminiscent of David Bowie, introduces the thesis of the album: “I can’t turn off what turns me on.” Clark juxtaposes pain and pleasure until the phrases “mass seduction” and “mass destruction” become indistinguishably conflated.

Ironically, the song “Happy Birthday, Johnny” was the most minimalist production-wise but had the most cathartic impact. The lyrics are nostalgic for a love in New York City and serves as a crooked lullaby to a misunderstood lover. This is one of those ballads that makes very specific references but feels devastatingly personal to any listener.

The album’s smoldering edge soon returns on “Savior,” with its catchy melody and erotic undertones. This song projects a taunting, role-playing caricature that is oddly sandwiched between two of the most personal and heart-rending ballads that come from Clark’s authentic voice.

The quiver in her voice at the end of when she says “you’re the only mother f-cker in the city / who’d forgive me” on the track “New York” is enough to wreck me every time. Although this song had already been released as a single, it took on a deeper meaning when fit into the context of the album. It is a melancholy, string swept ballad that describes how the absence of one person can make a home seem suddenly unfamiliar.

“Young Lover” has a danceable beat but describes the horrific memory of seeing a loved one passed out from an overdose. It seems to provide a conclusion for “Pills” and serve as a cautionary tale about medication and addiction.

“Dancing With A Ghost” is a brisk, dreamy, wordless interlude that serves as the pre-game for one of the most sensational tracks on the album, “Slow Disco,” a sad waltz with hypnotizing smooth strings and harmonies. Her voice almost cracks as she sings “slip my hand / from your hand / leave you dancing with a ghost.” The song is the perfect transition into the final track as this triumph of an album draws to a close with “Smoking Section.” After all of the chaos and heartbreak presented throughout the album, she contemplates going to the edge and nearly giving into the darkness. But alas, she deliberately takes a step back.

“It’s not the end” she repeats 12 times, before her voice gradually slips away, leaving listeners with a final message of hope and healing.