On every previous St. Vincent album cover, you see Annie Clark’s face. On her first records, Marry Me and Actor, the images are simple portraits in front of seamless backgrounds, but as Clark’s music gained complexity and ambition, so did the images. Strange Mercy featured just her mouth pushing through a rubbery, white material, her collaborative LP with David Byrne depicted both artists’ faces altered with prosthetics, and her self-titled major label debut saw her rightfully assume the throne it felt like she’d been working towards her entire career.
But on St. Vincent’s newest record, we see a different side of Clark. She’s not even visible on the album cover, instead showcasing a body with its head through a wall. The cover design is part of a larger visual aesthetic, equal parts sly gag and avant garde art, as much about color and composition as it is about the subject. But the truth is that Clark doesn’t need to show her face on MASSEDUCTION; her vitality is implanted on every note of the collection. For once, the listener doesn’t need help drawing the connection from the artist they hear to the artist they see. Or, maybe, Clark is drawing attention to the fact that this album presents a new side to her.
Having gone on record from the launch of MASSEDUCTION’s album cycle that this would be a more personal album for the artist, the record isn’t quite as explicit or forthcoming as that teaser might suggest. The rollout has been as opaque as ever, skewering things like the media and her own celebrity in a rollout worthy of the term “rollout” for the first time in her career. Clark’s best marketing has always been her own virtuoso musicianship, but there’s the sense that with MASSEDUCTION, someone presented the internal need to seem like a bigger deal. This is what bigger artists do, so St. Vincent should follow suit.
The downside to such a blitz is that it denotes a level of anticipation in the music that can be unfair. If St. Vincent is pushing her album with a bigger marketing campaign than ever before, than the music has to be better, right? For someone that’s released some of the best records of the past decade, it’s a hard bargain. Yes, MASSEDUCTION is worthy of being treated like an event, but whether or not it tops her previous two excellent efforts is a little tougher to support.
Instead of trying to top her previous heights, Clark is much more interested in exploring new territory. This comes in the form of extreme vulnerability as her breathy voice shakes on the intimate opening track, “Hang on Me”. Clark is always a technically sharp vocalist, so much so that hearing her sing from a whisper is disarming. Clark doesn’t need to hit all the notes to be magnificent. On “Hang on Me”, it’s enough that she sounds like herself and that her confessions of heartbreak, including the refrain “you and me, we aren’t meant for this world,” land with the bravery with which they are intended.
Near the end of the album, we hear Clark’s voice again out of its comfort zone. “Slow Dance” closes with a repeated line, “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death,” where Clark’s voice is modified enough that it sounds like another person is singing. Immediately after, in the opening to “Smoking Section”, her voice takes the song title literally and grumbles like she has ash in her lungs. “Sometimes I feel like an inland ocean,” she sings, “too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction.” The song is full of lines like this, where self-reflection is given through a decidedly St. Vincent lens. It’s love and loss that pushes the singer to these uncomfortable places, willing to let the audience feel her own struggle and not just hear it. It’s an exercise in abdicating the otherworldly rock god pedestal she built for herself, coming back down to Earth with the rest of us.
It’s somewhat fitting that the artist Clark’s career arc has long been intertwined with, David Bowie, died between album cycles for her, as well as Prince, whom the record frequently evokes (see the one-two punch of the title track and “Sugarboy”). To call Clark our modern-day version of these heroes is neither reaching nor unheard of, and MASSEDUCTION further supports this angle. It’s what allows moves that might alienate some fans — less guitar god moments, working with pop producer du jour Jack Antonoff — to feel natural and even necessary. The artists for whom Clark now carries the torch were never satisfied with their past accomplishments and were always pushing forward. MASSEDUCTION cements her in this camp.
But it’s also important to note how comfortable Clark is when she drifts close to a pop star. Even before working with Antonoff, she never struggled to write a big chorus or melody. It’s one of the pillars on which her greatness is built. If Antonoff adds anything, and you’d be hard-pressed to guess he was involved if you didn’t know it, it’s in the way the synths sound and helping to package St. Vincent in a moment that feels very 2017. The record’s biggest pop moments — “Los Ageless”, “New York”, and “Pills” — work as both timeless pieces and music that couldn’t have been made in another era. Clark may be borrowing from Depeche Mode when “Los Ageless” unveils its big synthesizer riff, but the broader package, as well as her lyrical observations, are very much of the moment.
The sense with MASSEDUCTION is that Annie Clark puts all of herself into her creations. It was easy before to associate this with a face. It was enough that a video clip of her telling whoever watching that she loves them could go viral. But slowly we’ve associated St. Vincent with all of the complexity that is Annie Clark, turning her into one of the most complex, challenging, and fascinating figures in contemporary music. It’s not her goal to show that she’s worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as the great masters. But it’s her willingness to follow whims, to push herself, and to take her audiences along for the ride that does it for her.
Essential Tracks: “Los Ageless”, “New York”, “Hang on Me”, and “Smoking Section”