St. Vincent is at the top of her game. Long live the Queen
I imagine when you walk into “Being an Icon 101” as a freshman at the School of Rock, one of the professors has written on the board, “Grab their attention, and make it worth the price of admission.” That’s what Prince and David Bowie did after all. They created spectacles out of themselves, not giving a fuck about anything except showing us a good time and maybe teaching us something new and weird along the way. When David Bowie died last year, to cheer up I’d actually remind myself, “Hey man, at least we still have Prince right?” So this review is a plea — for the love of God, protect St. Vincent.
MASSEDUCTION, the latest album from the artist formerly named Annie Clark, purports to be her most personal. In promoting this album, Clark said, “It’s pretty first person…If you want to know about my life, listen to this record.” But she also said, “you can’t fact check it,” which is a telling qualification. Memoirs always rely on fabrication and artistic license; you don’t trust those artists you love to be totally honest with you, right? And think about it: if MASSEDUCTION is St. Vincent’s most personal record, why do all the other albums have her face on them, but on this one, she’s mooning us? Wasn’t the last album self-titled? Do you think Prince walked around in a purple tuxedo before we ever saw him wearing his purple tuxedo? Was the actual David Bowie more Aladdin Sane or Thin White Man? What do you mean David Bowie wasn’t his real name?
MASSEDUCTION exists somewhere between Annie Clark the person and St. Vincent the rock star, and it’s a master class in artist persona creation. After all, the artist’s job is to seduce, and being seduced carries weird implications. You almost feel tricked; something isn’t quite as it seems, but only so that you’d want to ask about it. If you gave into curiosity, who’s really to blame? That’s what the pop star does; they invite you in to where the lights are dim, offer fancy new cookies, and bat their eyes coyly when you ask what’s in them.
The album’s title track is a celebration of pop music in all its participatory ambiguity. If some critical theorist had previously described rock music as a weapon of mass seduction, then I’m sorry, but St. Vincent said it better. “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” she declares with swagger, robotic background singers cooing the song’s title, juxtaposing the parallel powers pop music has in forming individual identities and building large communities, the star on stage mixing with the face in the crowd. Like the best pop of the last half-century, MASSEDUCTION revels in the space between the roots of American music and electronica, between death drive and sex drive, between the intensely personal and the ecstatically gregarious.
Contradictions and ambiguities run through the album. “Pills” masterfully rides the line between obnoxious and infectious before abruptly deflating, like a charming party guest who took too much Klonopin to calm down from taking too much Adderall. The soaring hook on “Los Ageless” cleverly elides the end of a relationship with the loss of youth, at turns appreciative, sad, and incredulous. “Sugarboy” plays into the long history of androgyny in rock and roll, with Clark singing she’s “a lot like you (BOYS)” and “alone like you (GIRLS)” as she barrels down an electro sci-fi highway.
Even at its most vulnerable, the album is preoccupied with the disconnect between intention and audience, as on the devastating “Happy Birthday, Johnny.” A heartbreaking account of addiction, the song opens with, “Remember one Christmas I gave you Jim Carroll/Intended it as a cautionary tale/You said you saw yourself inside there,” and by the end, as bleary-eyed slide guitars evoke decades of country music, she’s lamenting that only “Johnny” knows the real Annie. But that’s only side one, so there’s no time to mope: here comes “Savior” wearing slinky porno funk lingerie.
All this is to say that MASSEDUCTION offers a glimpse into a strange and alluring world, equal parts sexy and mournful, futuristic and recognizable, centered around the inimitable figure of St. Vincent. It might tell us something about the woman Annie Clark, but only by conjuring an opaque mystique. How much of Ziggy Stardust is David Bowie? When you listen to Purple Rain, do you really learn anything about Prince Rogers Nelson? Yes, probably. Maybe. No? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The point is how effectively the pop star uses their own vulnerability to make you feel cared for alone in your room AND comfortable screaming like an idiot in a crowd of a hundred other screaming idiots.
More than autobiography, MASSEDUCTION is the coronation of St. Vincent as the coolest motherfucker alive. The kings are dead. Long live the Queen.