You do wonder how hard Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent, would have to fall before we stop paying attention to her. In the ten years since her first LP, she’s proven herself to undeniably be one of the best guitarists working today, outmatched David Byrne on their wonderful Love This Giant collaboration and consistently provides a formidable live show to boot. Add to this a run of stellar releases and you’ve got a very rare and special thing on your hands that it’s hard to imagine life without anymore: an artist who can consistently surprise you and yet never let you down. MASSEDUCTION, her fifth solo album, is a succinct demonstration of that fact. In the fatless 40 minute runtime, she explores desperation, lust and existential despair over the most raunchy, ferocious guitar work this side of Stax Records. It is a record defined and fuelled by the conflict of its personas. On the one side is the confident rockstar rubbing up against any willing participant with a pulse. On the other is the person behind them: A human being riddled with doubt, anger and self-loathing using pharmaceuticals to avoid succumbing to the pressure.
‘Hang On Me’ is a strong contender for opener of the year. It’s a musically dense and intricately textured mid-tempo number that builds and builds to its own unique crescendo that doesn’t spill into mawkishness. Lyrically it’s a delicate, anxiety-riddled plea to a former lover to keep talking for just another minute. It’s stunning and perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come. It’s after this cut that the political undercurrent of the album comes to the fore, be it the societal over-dependence on pharmaceutical solutions (‘Pills’), the vapid, dehumanising culture of Los Angeles (‘Los Ageless’) or demeaning oneself for another sexual approval (‘Masseduction’). Clark has well-formed and expressed thoughts on the matters exploring them precisely and never letting them override the more personal aspects of things. These are deeply personal songs. No matter what slant is taken on a topic, they’re imbued with a deeply nuanced sense of panic, desperation, and loneliness.
Her narrators are consumed by a longing for human connection and fear of losing it. ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ is an absolutely heartbreaking exploration of the suicide of a friend and her guilt in feeling somewhat involved. It is love and loss with a dash of poison. ‘New York’, which would make a fantastic companion piece to LCD Soundsystem’s ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me down’ in how it deals with the spiritual disconnection from symbols and ideas which once protected you. It can be a city, your musical heroes or even an individual. ‘Young Love’ is about watching someone you deeply care about slowly lose themselves and the desire to regain their affection. Finally in ‘Smoking Section’ she walks us to the edge of the high building and walks us through to her debate as she questions whether her death would be a suitable punishment for an ex-lover. MASSEDUCTION is by no stretch a light listen and it that weight and intensity that makes it so captivating.
Crucially though, Clark’s music delivers in spades and more than matches the quality of the words on display here. Her versatility here is simply staggering. Every song has it’s own identity and sensibility. While certain tropes and ideas may overlap, they do not repeat themselves. One moment she’ll bring down the house with a quiet piano ballad, the next it’s a full-blooded slice of disco and, when the moment calls for it, her legendary guitar work takes front and centre. Compare the manic energy and filthy riffage of ‘Pills’ to the nightmarish disco intensity of ‘Sugarboy’. On the softer side of things, the gentle balladry of ‘New York’ shares DNA with ‘Smoking Section’ but is a world away from that song’s apocalyptic bent. Even the orchestral elements of that track are vastly different from the haunting beauty of ‘Slow Disco’, with its divine choral interludes. This is what smart pop music sounds like. As rich as Bill Gates and as impossibly cool as David Bowie in 1976 with a cigarette hanging off his lower lip. Masseduction is a testament to the quality of Clark. This is a classic through and through. Don’t miss it. Will Murphy