Now five albums into her career, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, has achieved nigh-untouchable status in the world of indie music, something that didn’t necessarily seem predestined back when she released her debut album Marry Me in 2007. Clark’s calling card — all vacant stares and expressionless vocals surrounded by reams of atonal, dissonant pop — has changed little over the course of her tenure, yet she has steadily honed both her craft and her public image to the point that her apparent preeminence has become nearly incontrovertible.
An unabashedly affected artist, St. Vincent rarely transmits emotions directly in her music. Her aesthetic is all about artifice, albeit one that’s unstable and continuously at risk of collapsing, exposing the real humanity beneath. Though they operate in entirely different genres, she is not unlike Lana Del Rey in this sense. As her rabid fan base and critical acclaim can attest, many find this dynamic to be thrilling. But there is also something undeniably aloof, cerebral in a chilly, removed way, about St. Vincent, and she has grown only more so with each successive album until reaching an apex with her 2014 self-titled album.
While not fundamentally different, St. Vincent’s latest effort, Masseduction, thankfully scales back the detachment just a bit. More so than Strange Mercy or St. Vincent, it feels like the successor to 2009’s Actor, which remains, in this writer’s estimation, both her best and most accessible work to date. Adopting colorful synths and programmed drums to match its neon-lit album cover, Masseduction is more easily digestible than its predecessors and more engaging emotionally. Take “New York”, for instance: on this short and sweet piano ballad, Annie Clark allows herself to sound more vulnerable than she has in years, letting the song’s plaintive melodies and gently swelling orchestration carry her away to a melancholy dream.
It’s refreshing to hear St. Vincent sound like this again. Unfortunately, Masseduction is not all successes. On the opposite end of the spectrum from “New York”, there is “Pills”, which has to be one of the worst songs St. Vincent has ever released. With a robotic, singsong chorus mimicking a manic commercial jingle (courtesy of Cara Delevingne), Clark comments on our culture’s addiction to pills as the solution to every ailment: “Pills to wake, pills to sleep / Pills, pills, pills every day of the week.”
It’s not that Clark is wrong by any stretch, but this conversation has been going on for decades, and rather than finding a new or interesting way to add to it, she merely goes for the most obvious and tired method available. A falsely upbeat jingle trying to sell you something sinister is hardly a novel artistic idea, and it’s almost embarrassing to see an artist as vaunted as Clark take such an obvious route trying to replicate the social commentary of “Digital Witness” (which was itself a brilliant song). Speaking with Pitchfork, Clark described the song as “personal” and said it is not meant to be a “finger-wagging” song, but sadly that is exactly how it comes across.
As the album’s second track, “Pills” throws Masseduction off course in a way that isn’t irredeemable, but it certainly taints the overall product. That said, the rest of the album is fairly strong, ranging from buoyant synthpop cuts to surprisingly somber numbers in the same vein as “New York”, like late highlights “Slow Disco” and “Smoking Section”. “Los Ageless” is a classic St. Vincent track dressed up with an electronic bounce, its chorus (“How can anybody have you and lose you / And not lose their minds, too?”) taking another well-trodden idea, the loss of youth, and managing this time to make it sound convincing and effective. And then there’s “Hang on Me”, “Young Lover”, “Masseduction”, “Sugarboy”, et cetera: the list of equally compelling, serviceable synthpop tracks goes on. Would the many solid cuts on Masseduction be met with the same unrestrained acclaim coming from anyone else, though? I’m not sure they would. Their remarkability is simply not that self-evident.
Masseduction is sure to shore up ambivalence in many listeners. In many ways the album is a welcome entry in St. Vincent’s catalogue, scaling back the overwrought pretension that has characterized some of her recent output and opting for a poppier, almost more populist sound. Releasing a synthpop album at some point in one’s career has started to feel like an inevitability for many artists these days, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to see it happen. Still, being a St. Vincent album, Masseduction doesn’t always sound comfortable letting its artifice crumble, and its half-hearted attempts at social commentary cause it to sag at times. It might not be the preeminent masterpiece many are already making it out to be, but the album does have some great moments, and it bodes good things for the trajectory of St. Vincent’s ongoing career.