“MASSEDUCTION,” Annie Clark’s fifth and unquestionably finest record as St. Vincent, opens on a note of startling sadness.
“I cannot stop the airplane from crashing/ and we circle down from the sky,” the guitar goddess sings on “Hang on Me” over a sparsely arranged bed of slow-stirring synths, pinioned in the plummeting wreckage of a ruined love and still pleading for a chance to redeem it. “You and me,” she sighs, “we’re not meant for this world.”
Given Clark’s rising profile — exemplified by the tabloid fever that surrounded her relationship with model/actress Cara Delevingne — it’s increasingly tempting to affix names to the new album’s lyrics, particularly ones so aching. In interviews, Clark has called the disc her most personal, signaling a departure from the dissection of cultural archetypes she relished on her past two albums. “If you want to know about my life, listen to this record,” she stated in a “MASSEDUCTION” press release.
So listeners might be concerned by the bitter, bruised undercurrent of loneliness laced throughout, palpable even on songs exploring the lurid excesses promised by the album title. Such melancholy surfaces most forcefully on the heartbreaking lead single, “New York,” a ballad about how losing a lover can render every place that holds memories of that person painfully unfamiliar.
But the musician’s ambitions here clearly stretch far beyond the confessional. Examining power, seduction, sex, drugs, and self-annihilation, the album places Clark within a kaleidoscopic hall of mirrors, each refracting a sliver of identity back at the listener. The prismatic array of icy synths, programmed beats, and rich textures creates a sound at once hypnotic and disconcerting, intriguingly raw but slickly digitized.
Contradiction has long fascinated Clark, especially as applied to social constructs, individual insecurities, and the ways they can link to form something of a psychosexual Ouroboros. Her explorations of gender and sexuality, especially, have always been queered, rejecting normativity on principle.
Here, whether on the gleefully unhinged “Sugarboy” or the gnashing title track (on which the singer howls, “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” as accurate a through-line for the album as any), Clark’s appreciations of fluidity are on full display. She also explores the complexity of addiction in the unnervingly manic “Pills” (featuring Delevingne on the creepy, chirpy chorus) and dirge-like “Happy Birthday Johnny.”
Like much of St. Vincent’s music, “MASSEDUCTION” is built to both entice and unsettle; even heated accounts of kinked-out carnality and drug-fueled bacchanalia barely cloak the destructive, depressive tendencies of the characters involved. And as the disc unfurls, its darkness creeps up, as does Clark’s weary acknowledgment that every vice feeds a void without filling it.
“Young Lover” has a drugged-out lover dying in a bathtub. “Slow Disco,” the best song on the album, is a labyrinth of sad, spiraling synths mourning the inevitability of isolation. Clark caps “MASSEDUCTION” with “Smoking Section,” a stormy number in which a character contemplates suicide out of spite for an ex-lover but worries such an act would precipitate the ultimate affirmation of isolation: that “no one would notice/ no one would know.”
That “MASSEDUCTION” can nakedly stare down such darkness to such devastating effect but find equal merit in dressing it up in disappointing S&M daydreams (the savagely sour “Savior”) or “Twilight Zone” nightmares (the roaring single “Los Ageless,” in which she sings, “How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?”) speaks to Clark’s alchemic abilities as a musician and tight grip over her uniquely, intimately epic perspective.
It’s a jittering, coruscating sucker punch of an album — and St. Vincent’s first bona fide masterpiece.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.