“MASSEDUCTION” is a disorienting album. This is a good thing, as when you’re six albums into a decade-and-a-half-long, critically acclaimed indie rock career like Annie Clark’s — the multi-instrumentalist who goes by St. Vincent — is, you need to disorient your listeners. While it’s certainly possible to screw up the artistic experimentation that creates this disorientation — witness Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now,” which aimed for pointed social critique but mostly achieved annoyance — the alternative is to sink into monotony and self-plagiarism, recreating your old hits until you end up giving up the ghost and just doing a 20-year anniversary tour around an album people actually liked.
So it’s a relief that St. Vincent sounds as willing to surprise as she has ever been on “MASSEDUCTION.” What’s most interesting about “MASSEDUCTION,” over the course of its 13 tracks, is the precise way it disorients. In order to make the most direct, emotionally affecting music of her career, St. Vincent adopts the trappings of pop, a genre often maligned for its superficiality and shallowness.
Of course, St. Vincent has always been a pop artist. A songwriter as clever and gifted with melody as Clark can’t help but make pop records. Her first five records were collections of tuneful pieces that, despite Clark’s penchant for experimental noise and awe-inspiring guitar solos, stood best as songs — songs that you could see getting played on the radio in some alternate universe slightly cooler than our own.
Yet St. Vincent’s pop songs always were coated in some affectation, whether it be the slightly-too-clever chamber pop of her debut, “Marry Me,” the gauzy shoegaze of her best album, 2011’s “Strange Mercy” or the analog synth and horn-driven pomp of her 2014 self-titled record, which won her the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2014. What’s different on “MASSEDUCTION” is that the veil has been lifted — for the first time, it feels like Annie Clark has decided to shed the guises that the alter ego of St. Vincent has provided and cut to the feeling.
This change is evident from the opening seconds of the album. The vocals on prior St. Vincent records were mixed in some eerie, slightly sterile way, making Clark’s ethereal voice float above you as some untouchable force. On “Hang On Me,” though, she sounds desperate and human, shorn of the protective auras she once built around her. Her sonic trappings are sparse — accompanied by just a simple drum machine beat and a few gorgeous descending synth and guitar lines, she sounds lonely where she once would have sounded solitary, like Napoleon at Elba.
The small, honest tragedy of the opener, with its declaration that “you and me/We’re not meant for this world,” sets the tone for the rest of the album — music that uses the superficial production of pop to plumb deeper emotional depths.
Aiding St. Vincent on this journey is producer Jack Antonoff, who most recently produced Lorde’s “Melodrama,” an album similarly concerned with making deeply personal pop music. Antonoff’s sonic influence on “MASSEDUCTION” is perhaps overstated — only lead single “New York,” a compelling ballad let down by Antonoff’s love for overly clean, quantized piano sounds, really sounds like him — but Clark’s decision to bring him in shows her seriousness in the pursuit of pop.
Not all the album’s tracks succeed as pop experiments. The aforementioned “New York” falls flat, despite the real emotion of Clark’s voice — it’s the most natural pop song here but somewhat paradoxically is also the one hurt most by the album’s production style. Certain other songs, like “Fear the Future” and the album’s title track, also don’t quite work, sounding more like outtakes from an earlier St. Vincent album dressed up in a slightly different style of glam.
Yet when “MASSEDUCTION” works, it hits like a coordinated missile strike. Fast-paced, maximalist songs like “Pills” and “Sugarboy” draw you in with their dizzying arrays of synths and distorted guitar, but their hooks and codas slow down, surprising you with their emotional depth.
The album’s best tracks, though, are its ballads. The album’s centerpiece, “Happy Birthday Johnny,” is the most direct Clark has been on record — backed only by a few slide guitar and piano accents, she sings with a resigned sorrow of Johnny, a real estranged friend. She has sung about “Johnny” before on her first and fourth albums, but only here, at the conclusion of the trilogy, does she break, leaving the St. Vincent persona and referring to herself as “Annie.” Equally impressive and emotionally affecting is the album’s penultimate track, “Slow Disco.” Co-written with half of the country duo The Civil Wars, it’s as pure a ballad as any track in St. Vincent’s catalog. Over a string quartet and a lightly distorted guitar, she narrates through the metaphor of a dance floor the slow decay of a relationship in only a few expertly crafted lines. It’s the most serene and sincere the album gets, a moment where even the last bits of artifice fade away.
“MASSEDUCTION” is a mess, but a deeply compelling one. An album with this many different ideas and stylistic urges shouldn’t quite work — you can tell the strain at the edges here and there — but listening to an artist as dynamic and skilled as St. Vincent experiment in a new milieu is worth your time on its own. To hear her make some of the most direct and compelling music of her career in that new milieu is all the greater reward.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.