According to St Vincent’s Annie Clark, Masseduction is an album all about power. “What does power look like, who wields it, how do they wield it – emotionally, sexually, financially?” is how she described it in an interview with Buzzfeed. During the promotional campaign for her sixth album, Clark’s fixation with power bled into her persona, as she occupied herself by intimidating journalists. She took “predatory delight” in grilling the Buzzfeed writer, was frosty towards the New Statesman, typing on her phone while commanding the journalist to “keep asking away” (she later apologised for being a “cock”), and subtly cruel to the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten, who described how “her cheery use of the name of the person she is addressing can seem to contain a faint note of mockery”. He recalled how he often walked away from conversations with Clark “feeling like a character in a kung-fu movie who emerges from a sword skirmish apparently unscathed yet a moment later starts gushing blood or dropping limbs”.
On the one hand, Clark’s power grabs seemed gratuitous. She is one of the most celebrated musicians on the planet: critically adored – Masseduction is the second St Vincent record to be named the Guardian’s album of the year – and a beacon of defiant and in-yer-face experimentalism (the Masseduction artwork, a picture of a garishly dressed bum, being one example).
On the other hand, her behaviour is understandable. In recent years, Clark has been plagued by forces beyond her control. Relationships with high-profile celebrities including Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart made her a staple of the Daily Mail’s gossip-mongering Sidebar of Shame, and her own burgeoning celebrity meant she lost control over her narrative, appearing in cheesy Instagram photos with Taylor Swift and having tabloids uncover her father’s prison sentence for fraud.
Straddling these two states – queenly rule and emotional chaos – was Masseduction, a striptease that sees Clark expose herself on her own terms. The results were spectacular, full of drama, depth and gratifyingly bizarre sonic choices.
Clark made the album with producer Jack Antonoff, current collaborator of choice for Taylor Swift and Lorde. His involvement didn’t have a huge aural impact – the thrillingly disjointed but melodically gorgeous St Vincent sound remained intact – but his inclination for taking real-life trauma and fashioning it into pop took the album a step beyond Clark’s previous work. Clark described how Antonoff “changed my outlook on life”, morphing her music into something more direct and leading her to realise that “irony is emotional death”.
Irony and its cousin camp can be instruments of intimidation. Prising open the gap between words, images and meaning creates a frightening sense of exclusion for those not on the inside track. Camp’s disruption of meaning was a shock tactic employed by glam – a genre label sometimes slapped on St Vincent, thanks to her outrageous stage get-up (toilet costume, leopard-print catsuit), her not-quite-anything-rock style, and her queer and kinky sensibilities (she has described her persona on this album as “dominatrix at the mental institution”). Despite Antonoff’s influence, that kind of teasing irony remains detectable on Masseduction: the smirk is still very much present on tracks such as Savior, in which she gleefully mocks conventional sexiness by matching parodic, saucy funk with lyrics about pedestrian turn-ons such as dressing up a nurse, and Pills, a song about drug dependency sung like a nursery rhyme.
These theatrics are highly entertaining, but on Masseduction Clark also embraces simple, linear narratives that seem earnest (she may have denounced the term “confessional” as sexist, but it also fits neatly with her Christianity fixation). The thick, grey shudder of anxiety is treated not as a mood-setter, but as a humiliating and grimly mundane reality on the heartrending opener Hang on Me. A late-night panic attack forces an obsessed and desperate Clark to reluctantly disturb a friend (“I know you’re probably sleeping / I got this thing I keep thinking”), before attempting to soothe herself via the simple task of coming to terms with her eventual death.
It’s a beautiful evocation of how debilitating anxiety can be, yet most of the distress on Masseduction comes not from a dark night of the soul but from more practical concerns. On Young Lover, Clark resembles a weary and worried parent, scared that her other half will die from a drug overdose. Happy Birthday, Johnny is about the long-lost friend who also appeared on her 2014 track Prince Johnny. The latter is a lyrically opaque song that alluded to a craving for validation, and featured a memorable passage in which the pair snorted a piece of the Berlin wall. The newer song is a straightforward but devastating stew of guilt, resentment and sadness: Johnny is now homeless and Clark both blames herself and is unwilling to help him.
The Johnny songs provide the most crystalline example of Clark’s lyrical evolution, one that has seen the eccentric musician collide with the times. Pop music has become more frank and self-lacerating in 2017 thanks to the influences of songwriters such as Antonoff and Julia Michaels. But it’s not the only way that Masseduction slots into the wider context of contemporary music. Clark often takes cues from Kanye West, who tends to leave songs some distance from where they started, loosely stitching ideas together to make a sonic Frankenstein. Pills starts out as a demented playground chant and bows out with a sultry sax solo by Kamasi Washington. Sugarboy is a frantic cyborg-disco number that is eventually swallowed by an avalanche of noise. The faux-funk of Savior, meanwhile, climaxes with a muttered R&B-style vocal sample.
Yet there’s no getting away from the fact that St Vincent is a singular rock star: able to continue the thrilling and transgressive glam traditions while also making her music a channel for deep emotional connection. If she needs to engage in a couple of intimidation tactics along the way to do so, then more power to her.
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