review: St. Vincent’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is a thrilling, personal reinvention (stream it)
St. Vincent's first major breakthrough was 2011's Strange Mercy. It's home of career-defining songs like "Cruel" and "Cheerleader" and it showed Annie Clark mastering her unparalleled guitar style which mixes chops and innovation in a way that no one else had really been doing. The album's success helped land her a deal with a major (Loma Vista, which at the time was part of Republic, though it moved to Concord Music Group later on), and 2014's St. Vincent is pretty much the ideal major label debut. It took everything that we loved about Strange Mercy, upped the accessibility, and really perfected her sound. If there's any complaint to be had, it's almost too perfect. The songs on St. Vincent are so tightly wound that they sound like they'd collapse if any minor detail went wrong. With seemingly no possible way to perfect the St. Vincent sound any further, her fifth and best album MASSEDUCTION is the one where she rips it up and starts again. The songs on MASSEDUCTION have room to breathe in a way St. Vincent songs never really have before, and this is some of her most human-sounding music ever.
She introduced the world to MASSEDUCTION the perfect way -- by releasing a song that bore almost no resemblance to her previous work, "New York." On it, her crazy guitar playing is nowhere in sight. Instead, it's a piano ballad (with piano performed by the very talented Doveman) and raw, honest lyrics like "you're the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me" in the forefront. Annie's lyricism has always been sharp, but it's never opened up like this. "New York" is one of the most powerful songs released this year, and it's not the only song on MASSEDUCTION of its kind. "Happy Birthday, Johnny," another Doveman collaboration, proves that the knack for confessional balladry that St. Vincent showed on "New York" was no fluke. Its chorus of “Happy birthday, Johnny, wherever you are” could make it seem like a less deep song than “New York,” until you consider the hyper-specific scenes that Annie sets when the song begins: “Remember one Christmas, I gave you Jim Carroll? Intended it as a cautionary tale. You said you saw yourself inside there, dog-eared it like a how-to manual.” Both songs show St. Vincent taking on the kind of classic ballad that's existed in pop for over half a century, and somehow never sounding predictable.
It's a thrill to hear Annie excelling at sounds she hasn't tackled before, but it's still a St. Vincent album and there is still plenty of material in her trademark style. The most jaw-dropping is "Pills." Its hook sounds like a commercial jingle, but it's also a biting social commentary on how we use pills for just about everything: to wake, sleep, think, work, grow, shrink, fuck, and eat. It's sort of a modern-day The Who Sell Out. In that same song, there's the kind of futuristic shredding that only Annie Clark can do, and a slow, swaying ending that drops the social commentary angle for a section that's like a hymn with a twist ("Come all you killers, come out to play / Everyone you know, will all go away"). Aiding Annie Clark on this monster of a song is a diverse all-star cast that includes sax by modern-day jazz great Kamasi Washington, backing vocals by former Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis, programming by TDE's in-house producer Sounwave (who produced Kendrick's "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" and many other songs), bass by Mike Elizondo (who co-wrote Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" and co-produced 50 Cent's "In Da Club"), and several contributions by the album's producer Jack Antonoff (who leads Bleachers and works with Taylor Swift, Lorde, Grimes, and more), among others. It's not everyday that a song that looks this crazy on paper sounds so natural.
St. Vincent follows "Pills" with a couple more high-strung, guitar-heavy social commentary songs, the title track and "Sugarboy." The title track, with its robotic, vocoder-aided hook of "Masseduction / I can't get turn off what turns me on," reads as a comment on the sex-fueled media that we consume all too much of. "Sugarboy," which comes with a danceable backdrop and gang-vocal shouts, could read as a comparison between personal relationships and the sweetness, addictiveness, and dissolubility of sugar.
If St. Vincent's best ballad is "New York," then her best guitar riff shows up on her ode to the opposite coast's major city, "Los Ageless." Going by the song's name and lines like "In Los Ageless, the waves just never break / They build and build until you don't have no escape," it sounds like a less literal take on LA than "New York" is with its references to specific NYC streets, but there are definite comparisons to be made between the songs. On "New York," St. Vincent addresses the song's subject with sentimentality ("New York isn't New York without you, love"), but on "Los Ageless," she's less at ease ("How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?" Annie asks on the hook).
MASSEDUCTION is one of those albums that really ebbs and flows and takes you on a trip, and it ends on one of its highest notes, the back-to-back comedown of "Slow Disco" and "Smoking Section." "Slow Disco" is another personal ballad, but this time instead of singing over Doveman's piano, she's singing over gorgeous, weeping strings. After the final refrain of "Slip my hand from your hand, leave you dancing with a ghost," St. Vincent replies with a pitch-shifted rhetorical that asks, "Don't it beat a slow dance to death?" On an album that muses on pills, anxieties towards modern times, and a fear of the future, it's a sobering moment, one that really makes you stop for a second and think. (Annie also told Pitchfork that the "I'm so glad I came but I can't wait to leave" line came from am unused song she had written for Joy Williams of the band The Civil Wars, hence crediting Joy as a co-writer on "Slow Disco.") Then it's the grand finale of "Smoking Section," which starts out as another Doveman-backed piano ballad until Jack Antonoff's synths come in and the song threatens to go full The Fame-era Lady Gaga for just a second, before returning to its original, minimal backdrop. That happens a few times, and its refusal to follow through keeps you on your toes every time. Then the song comes to a close with Annie repeating "It's not the end." Between the synth teases and the lyrical promise that there's more to come, "Smoking Section" truly leaves you wishing MASSEDUCTION wasn't over.
MASSEDUCTION will be out via Loma Vista at midnight.
We’ll update with a stream once it’s out. For now, watch the videos for "New York, "Pills," and "Los Ageless," below.
UPDATE: The album is out now. Listen: