Monday, October 16, 2017

album review: 'MASSEDUCTION' by st. vincent

I often feel like using the word 'evolution' to describe Annie Clark's ongoing career under the name St. Vincent isn't quite accurate. I think 'mutation' is the better word - and believe it or not, that's a compliment! She may have started in the more poised and polished realm of baroque pop with tasteful strings accenting her admittedly unorthodox style of guitar work, but as early as Actor things started to shift. The guitars got more processed and blocky that somehow still managed to support potent melodic grooves, the strings began giving way for synthesizers and tones that felt all the more alien, and while her voice kept its same ethereal quality - for the most part - the content and its connection to the human experience was contorting into something more primal, for lack of a better word. Oh, the empathy, complex framing, and willingness to bend taboos was always there, but its mode of expression was warping into something less and less recognizable, with the compositions and framing maybe losing a bit of their populism but opening up new depths of sound for her to explore.

And I'm a fan of it - a pretty big fan, actually. I'd still slot Strange Mercy as a shade stronger than the self-titled release just in terms of overall consistency, but with songs like 'Psychopath', 'Severed Crossed Fingers', 'Digital Witness' and the absolutely mind-blowing 'Bring Me Your Loves' St. Vincent was making a case for the more twisted sonic adventures having potential that was just as rich and promising. And considering that her newest record MASSEDUCTION was looking to be going even deeper in a thematically dense direction, I was most certainly curious where the hell she'd take this. So what did I find on MASSEDUCTION?

Folks, I have to be honest here: I didn't get what I was expecting with MASSEDUCTION. Maybe I should have, given her primary producer collaboration along with John Congleton was Jack Antonoff, but at the same time Antonoff can be plenty capable of enabling weirdness or off-kilter decisions - I heard that last Bleachers record. But the truth is that MASSEDUCTION isn't really as weird or challenging as her self-titled record was, in subject matter or presentation, and my struggle with the good dozen times I've listened through this album is whether or not at the end of the day it matters. 

Because here's the thing: while this record does contort in weird directions, at the end of the day we have to circle back to Annie Clark as a performer - and even if she's not getting her more rigidly constructed alien side on this time around, her voice has always had a richness of body and charisma that naturally commands attention, and with enough carefully poised and positioned multi-tracking she knows exactly where to emphasize her presence and power. As much as 'New York' isn't really representative of the record as a lead-off single, I still do love how the choral effect is applied, all the more potent on the hook of 'Savior', or how she descends into the husky lowest point of her register to emphasize the guttural core often accentuated by spasms of jagged guitar work strung through layer after layer of effects. What's telling, though, is that for as potent as this vocal production is, it's never quite placing her on the same pedestal of power and presence as a song like 'Bring Me Your Loves' did three years ago - if that song was intended to emphasize power, most of MASSEDUCTION seems to prod at its weak points, shove things off-balance.

And the production does a lot of this too. Many critics, in their rush to make a too-obvious Bowie comparison have compared the pop sides of this record to Let's Dance, but I'm not sure I would agree - there's more instability and cracks in the pop veneer on this record, and while there are parallels in the usage of saxophone, what caught me more by surprise was the pedal steel, mournful curling tolls that swell through the mix against the blown-out percussion lines, twisted guitar tracks, curdled bass, and peals of arranged instrumentation including strings, bells, piano and Mellotron, a fair amount provided by Jack Antonoff. And as much as Antonoff has become an easy punching bag among some indie circles, his production style here in 2017, balancing criss-crossing stately melodic accents with ragged, technocolour production flourishes is a great fit, especially with Congleton providing some welcome temperance to it all and letting Annie Clark's increasingly nasty guitar work spike against the faster thrumming bass beats. I might not be crazy about Jenny Lewis and Cara Delevigne deliver the hook on 'Pills' as the guitars spike more off the verse, but then the song splits open for its outro with hazy, psychedelic strums and it easily redeems the entire track. Or take the twisted rubbery loop behind the title track, or the nasty grit that is unlike anything else on 'Los Ageless', or the frail pieces that pick up more cacophonous noise and instability with each verse of 'Savior', or the sharper keening that mutates around the warped gallop on 'Fear The Future', or especially that key shift that breaks through the outro of 'Young Lover'. Hell, even on the ballads I can dig how Clark recontexualizes the elegance of earlier records into something that feels just as personal but ever so slightly different on 'New York' and 'Happy Birthday Johnny' or 'Slow Disco', the latter which is utterly gorgeous. Now for as distinct and warped as some of these tones are, I can't say I'm a fan of all of it - I wish the fidelity felt a tad more consistent, and for as pretty as 'Dancing With A Ghost' is, it's an interlude that's less than a minute long and feels a tad redundant with 'Slow Disco' following it. 

And while we're on that subject, I can't help but feel that some of these songs can feel a little undercooked, which takes us more to the writing. Now I'll get more into the content in a second, and this is coming with the understanding that Annie Clark's writing has always run the edge of being a little more 'primal' for lack of a better word... but I can't help but feel a few of these tunes on the back half of the record could have used a little more development in both writing and composition - maybe an added bridge or a third verse or something to further expand the themes and ideas that I'll be the first to say really are compelling. Clark has gone on the record saying that this record is not only about the exploration of power and how it is wielded, but that it's her most personal record to date, and thus it's hard not to see a personal edge creep back into the sexual language that is at its most pronounced since Strange Mercy, even if the stories were not explicitly hers on that project. But power is a tricky thing to contextualize, especially when you realize that St. Vincent is not mincing words on how she seems to attain and hold such poise, or what possessing or surrendering said power could mean for one's psyche. For as much as the title track comes in owning a certain brand of neon debauchery, it's telling that Clark references singing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' The Boatman's Call, the record that tilted into barebones melancholy after the whirling bloody madness of Murder Ballads - for as much as Cave as has been idolized, there's a yawning core at its root that can't easily be plugged - to quote Clark on that song, 'Oh, what a bore to be so adored', or how she references a similar void on 'Hang On Me'... and yet she's not turning off what turns her on. Or go to 'Los Ageless', where she highlights the youth and desperation to hold it that powers so much of Hollywood - but also how said youth is tragically misspent and squandered and she can only ride that tide, not force it. And then there's 'Savior', which takes the fetishistic trappings of a BDSM relationship and accurately shows not only how Clark can be tempted to indulge some of her own inclinations, but also that the submissive is trying to force her into a specific role, and when she tries to find her own dominant persona, that person cuts her down. It says a great deal that power, at least in these forms, while it might provide some relief or visceral satisfaction, it doesn't have the same weight, at least not for her.

But what does, and what happens when she encounters people for which it does hold that weight? 'Happy Birthday, Johnny' is the most stark example of this, where a character from her last record shows up with a bad heroin addiction and accusations that Clark isn't using her power and success to help, especially as he knows exactly where she came from and the sordid secrets she's hiding... but she knows there's a limit to how much help she can give. And when called out on her hypocrisy on 'Young Lover' for chasing the same shallow numbness instead of dealing with her pain... well, there's no easy answer, especially when power can provide an answer to at least obscure some of the deeper inadequacies, and it's also why time's passage on 'Fear The Future' hits closer to home - an unpredictable world where it all could slip away. Hell, it's one of the reasons why 'Slow Disco' has such subtle, aching power: give them a memory that could last forever than a slow decline... but then we get the closing track 'Smoking Section', where you see Clark at her most vulnerable and near-suicidal, seeming to bait a partner by reaction... but it underscores the truth about real, lasting power on this record, where in perhaps letting another in and ceding some of that shallow power, giving of yourself, that void can filled with a different sort of power that makes the nihilism feel shallow and paltry, even if it might resonate with a deeper pain... after all, to quote Clark again opposite a beautiful subtle shift from minor to major chords, what could be better than love?

Now if I'm being brutally honest, I don't quite think this is as profound or potent as what we got on Strange Mercy or the self-titled record - a little more development in a few of these tracks really could have gotten there more effectively, at least for me. But with the sort of stylism and complex emotional framing that has characterized all of St. Vincent's work, it takes a solid theme and deepens it with real color. Now with that being said, I'm not sure if I would put this among my favourite St. Vincent records - ask me in three months when it comes around time for year-end lists - but it is still great all the same. 8/10, definitely recommended, and as for acclaiming St. Vincent as the 'Bowie of our time'... nah, I'm more for her charting her own legend forward, because given the test of time, that's a power that'll certainly hold.

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