St. Vincent is a fabrication. It’s a creation slowly built and carved by Annie Clark, a project that came to resemble a human but wasn’t entirely meant to be. The name itself suggests the unreal, like the abstraction taken from an icon, a wistful sense of the holy that never was and isn’t still. That it’s Annie’s face which graces the cover of over half St. Vincent’s studio albums is beside the point: They share the same face, but St. Vincent is the image, Annie the person. Clark likes to play with that line between the persona and the person, but no matter how sweetly she has danced between the two, she still makes it known that it’s a performance. That creation has been her appeal to universality, and her Chloes and Johnnys, her “You”s and “I”s are all characters in this world building.
On MASSEDUCTION, her fifth album, the tension between Annie and St. Vincent dominates. It means everything and still it’s more unclear than ever before. That’s St. Vincent on stage bemoaning the seduction of the masses. There’s the created image fearing the future. And yet, when we move beyond the plastic surgery she both mocks coyly and wears herself, there’s an unflagging clarity that feels new.
Never has she made a song like “New York.” Never has she felt so naked; never has her songwriting been so simply beautiful, so free of alien metaphor, straight-talking yet poetic all the same. Here, she sings to a friend about definitions, about what a city means when those who made it everything are gone. Loss is consuming on MASSEDUCTION.
“New York” is the heart of this album, and so is the city. This is an album of love within a disease — within powerful addictions and temptations that rip people apart. And when she’s talking about love, she’s talking about New York. Her relationships mold that city, and when she walks through Time Square with her friend in “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” the loss she feels in the tear of that friendship is inexorably tied to those buildings. She sings him happy New Year and the ball drops for them both, far apart as they may be.
When she’s on the other coast, she’s singing about longing too, but it’s more lustful there, and a bit cheeky. On “Los Ageless,” she’s grinning at the superficial desires of that city. It’s a story of wants in Hollywood, this dying yearn for youthful perfection that will forever remain unattainable: “How can anybody have you? / How can anybody have you and lose you?” That song and that city are a degree separated from reality. Los Ageless isn’t a place, and whoever or whatever you take the “you” as, it’s gone regardless. Like that illusion, the song itself is overly concocted, complete with the ’80s drum pattern and synths signature of pop producer Jack Antonoff, who co-produced this album. This formula appears all throughout MASSEDUCTION, and it can be relentless in its forced smile. Of course that’s the point, but it can make for a less than gratifying listen. “Los Ageless” never really goes anywhere. It hardly wavers from the straight line laid out by its chorus.
We can read the tension between St. Vincent and Annie Clark through the tension between the two coasts, and this album rides these two modes: She alternates between the plastic of San Bernardino and the wrought confessional of the concrete jungle. Loneliness and loss move between these coasts, certainly, but the separation between the cities defines how she processes these feelings. In New York she looks inwards; in Los Angeles she looks outwards (and isn’t too impressed). MASSEDUCTION is very much about flying between them.
The stretch from “Pills” to “Los Ageless” is that West coast concern for the outward. The seductions she tackles are broader and more of the masses, as the album title suggests. There aren’t the hyper-specific moments we get on the tracks about New York, like that hotel room where Johnny lights up his Bic lighter in “Happy Birthday, Johnny.” Instead we have abstractions; in the title track she sings of “A punk rock romantic” and “Nuns in stress position.” On “Pills,” she dances to a chipper club beat while describing a pill-induced haze that could be anyone’s. She sounds almost celebratory, and she gets away with it because she’s right there in it too, seduced by the drugs and technology herself. She avoids what easily could have been a gratingly haughty tone.
This slew of songs is the most upbeat on the album, and St. Vincent hardly lets up the guise. They’re interesting thought experiments, but they can grow a bit tiresome as they push farther in the album, almost monotonous. When that sound reappears as late as “Fear the Future,” it’s nearly exhausting. It’s what makes those New York tracks so stunning, such breaths of fresh air among all the sickness.
For a while we’re not sure whether the two sides of this album will ever truly meet: drug- and sex- fueled nights lead into confessionals without a clear sense of narrative. It’s not until the end that we see MASSEDUCTION as a single story, on the closing track, “Smoking Section.” The song is an absolute triumph. It brings the unresolved ends to light, and the apparent contradictions are explained. St. Vincent draws a sketch of someone on the edge, someone who sees how easily it could all burst into flames and kind of likes it, maybe wants it to happen. “Let it happen,” she sings. And yet she doesn’t. By the end she decides, “It’s not the end,” though it very well could have been. The track moves slowly, explodes, recoils and does it all over, like the turns this album makes track by track. It’s a glam rock ballad about pop suicide, which she contemplates like a dark game on her stage, waiting for someone to light her up. But she doesn’t want to step over that edge. She stays behind it, toying with her own destruction, reveling in the seduction all the same.