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Sometimes I sit in the smoking section, hoping one rogue spark will land in my direction — St. Vincent, “Smoking Section”
St. Vincent is on fire. I maintain there is nothing more beautiful on this dear planet than witnessing a woman at the height of her power, and on her fifth full-length album, Masseduction, Annie Clark is nothing if not that. Hang on me, she urges at the beginning of the record, confident she’s strong enough to keep both parties afloat. But one pair of wings is never enough. And the rest of her new record, along with its rollout, portrays a woman who is very much at the end of her rope. “I lost my mind, I lost people, I gained people, I stopped touring,” she told Buzzfeed of the time between 2014’s self-titled and her return in 2017. Loss is everywhere on Masseduction, a record littered with shed skins.
Details from Annie Clark’s meticulous, marvelously curated life were selectively doled out to the journalists who could endure the grueling gauntlet of her barely-veiled disdain for the press, as communicated on Instagram, the self-directed platform of choice that massive stars like Beyonce and Taylor Swift have adopted as their own. With the help of ex-girlfriend Carrie Brownstein, the narrative thrust of Masseduction unfolded on social media in sardonic diatribes that skewer journalists who stick to rather tired narratives about New York versus LA (Clark’s two lead singles were odes to these respective cities), women in rock (she has her own guitar line, which she posed with in a “bikini shirt” for the cover of Guitar World to skewer gender stereotypes) or banalities like “inspiration” and “songwriting.” Indeed, how droll.
As uncomfortable and awkward as this sardonic artifice was, the actual interviews were somehow still worse. Clark showed up to one interview in a bathrobe, nearly prompting a crisis for the male journalist in question, got under the covers of her pristine, hip hotel bed for another, and suggested pilates classes for at least two other meetings with journalists (It never worked out). Even in the best of these pieces, her cheekbones are “insane,” and in the worst — in what might be a testament to the validity of some of her gripes with the press — Vogue notes her “doe eyes” and “near-translucent” skin, a trope that is somehow reprising The New Yorker, where she’s “almost translucent.”
Despite the much-discussed state of her skin in these overly long and tellingly short features, she’s nothing close to transparent, stoically repeating terrible phrases like “monastic fantastic” and calling press a “necesary evil” in service to her art, while her heartbroken pop album earned her accolades as a rock-goddess with an album about sex. Better critics heard her as a titan, which is more suited to the mythical scope of Masseduction, an album far more concerned with death and loss than sex, and one that leaves her rock throne all but abdicated.
Though most of her media posturing came off pretentious as f*ck, not unlike Arcade Fire’s own abysmal fake news turned infinite content ploy, the press cycle also gave clear insight into Clark’s mental state. Namely, that she’s been through the f*cking ringer and she’s sick of everyone’s sh*t, a narrative I can absolutely get on board with. Somehow, none of those interviews managed to communicate much at all about the trauma-pop that underlines Masseduction, which is both Clark’s finest and her most difficult work by leaps and bounds. She’s still almost impossible to parse, jagged and jittery, smoky and sparking — a lone ember at the end of a long dark night. In some ways, Masseduction feels like a bed of coals, a simmering set up for an even brighter flame still to come.
But there’s heartbreak all over this record, even in the snapping media response. Though the narrative fed to the journalists who Clark deigned to let approach the bench maintains over and over that Masseduction is not a breakup album, and searching for real life signifiers in a female artist’s work is “sexist,” it’s almost an insult to the power of broken love to pretend the magnificent force of this work wasn’t caused by a devastation of the heart. Forgive me if this makes me sexist, but it sounds like our dear Annie is very much in love with the only motherfucker in Manhattan who can handle her, and the lost “you” who inspired her LA lament. Or at least when she sings it, I can fill in her characters with my own, which is all good songwriting ever makes the listener do. Every single time — hero, darling, friend — I’d do it again.
There’s an inescapable aura of sadness on this album, and yes, perhaps the heartache is split between failed romance and the pain of those lost to addiction and their own trauma (“Happy Birthday, Johnny,” probably a reprise of the character or idea of “Prince Johnny” on Strange Mercy, and John from “Marry Me”), and the cloying predictability of roles that women — particularly queer women — are meant to inhabit (“Savior”), or even the loss of a place as home (“New York” and “Los Ageless” respectively), but those last two don’t work without the person powering their significance. Whether that person is Cara Delevingne or not matters very little for my purposes or yours, but pretending that element isn’t the overwhelming force on the record is delusional.
As canny and excellent as her past four albums have been, this fifth, fractured St. Vincent album is a quantum leap ahead, even from the knotty, whirling psych of 2014’s self-titled — and I refuse to give the credit to her new collaborator and producer Jack Antonoff. Considering how widely-known she is for fearsome guitar playing, and as a scion in the ever-narrowing field of rock, it may be surprising that Masseduction falls much more firmly in the realm of pop than most of Clark’s past discography. Then again, since we already knew she turned to Antonoff for production, the writing was on the wall to some extent.
After hearing the influence of Art Angels on Melodrama, and now, again on Masseduction, I may safely dub Antonoff a poor woman’s Grimes. Of course, the sweetly snarling Claire Boucher would be no pop star’s second fiddle, while Antonoff seems to actively enjoy his role as a pop heroine’s sidekick. Even so, there is nothing poor about Masseduction, which is such a richly blunt exploration of Clark’s interior life — a subject her past work, though stupendous, felt far away from — that the only recent album similar in scope may be Grimes’ own experimental pop masterpiece. Where Boucher dealt in elation and defiance, Clark deals in trauma, loss, and exhaustion. So, in pop music as anywhere else, we can measure the cultural temperature change from fall 2015 to fall 2017.
Why did Annie go pop? Because it’s the only genre big enough for these songs; the more personal the subject matter, the wider the lens. And however I may personally feel about Jack, it appears Annie sought Antonoff out because she had some extremely personal things to relate, and his work at the helm of both Taylor Swift and Lorde’s monumental breakup albums was pristine. Whatever mediating power he has when it comes to translating female trauma into music, Annie wanted it. Maybe, all she needed was a match.
Desire is, of course, the cornerstone of an album named for seduction and mass consumption, created in service to personal trauma. Botched desire is almost always traumatic, but few people can translate it the way Clark has here. Set in the twin American cities devoted to those causes, it doesn’t open in either, but instead, up in the sky. “Hang On Me” is throaty and hopeful, the way all the best declarations of love begin. With a wedding bell chorus, it’s caught up in heartbeat percussion, certain that a love like this can’t be of this world, but unsure whether that means destruction is promised. “Pills” pretty quickly answers this, building a throughline to the unpronounceable drugs in “Young Lover” and tying into the addictive thrum of the title track’s chorus: I can’t turn off what turns me on. Desire for what ruins her burns all over the record, a trick of the light, an old flame, the line of a new day appearing on the horizon.
Before we talk about the rest of Masseduction, we have to talk about “Young Lover,” which might be the best song of 2017. Coming at the tail end of the album, this song is the towering, unscalable mountain, the lightning strike and forest fire, the one that got away. It is everything a pop song should be, and nothing we have heard before. If I’m exaggerating, it’s only because she is. The heartbeat drums are back, but steadier, more insistent, accompanied by a careening guitar riff and Clark building sad and wise to guttural and savage.
Of all the songs on the album, it may also be the one that sounds the most like St. Vincent past, marrying her prog-rock inclinations with the drama and expanse of pop. “Young Lover” moves through suicide and drugs, perfect moments in Paris or Thailand, all the ways that affection and obsession can turn everything into a nightmare in an instant. It’s lost in toxic self-destruction, complete only in inevitable tragedy — a lollipop with a razor blade at the center. “Young Lover” is the beating heart of Masseduction, eclipsing even the title track as an emblem of how our own desire can poison us.
“Sugarboy” and “Savior” offer brief forays into sex, told with an eye toward queer and kink, building out the complexity of desire (They speak to me in bruises), each song sinking deeper into saccharine synths to subsume emotions. Instead, those emotions crop up in direct lyrics on the album’s heartbroken ballad, “New York” and the late, devastating couplet, “Dancing With A Ghost/Slow Disco” (the first half of which seems like a clear nod to Tegan and Sara’s “Walking With A Ghost”), a pair of songs about the pain that “Hang On Me” and “Young Lover” only hint is coming. To wallow in bad desire is addictive and easy, and it’s not love at all. Walking away is the deeper love; to finally arrive at the desire to protect yourself. The choice to stop dancing and fly on, alone.
The realization of all this choice is complete in “Smoking Section,” a song that toys with the same desperation that fuels the dystopian breakup jam “Fear The Future” — my baby’s lost to the monster — further echoing the ghost of destructive addiction that cropped up before. (Young lover, I wish that I was your drug). If the rest of the album follows the path toward emotional trauma, “Smoking Section” details what it’s like to live inside it, to sit in the aftermath. In an interview with Vinyl Me Please, Clark notes that this one kept resurfacing in her selection of songs that would make the cut. “I didn’t even realize I kept mentioning it,” she said. “But [Antonoff] stopped one day and he’s like, ‘That song means a lot to you, doesn’t it?’ Yeah, it really does.”
As shattered as she is on “Smoking Section,” it’s only here that Annie seems to be, finally, restored to herself. She’s inside the smoking section, but not as a smoker; she’s a visitor there, looking for temporary obliteration. As lonely as she’s ever been, threatening an absent beloved with self-harm, it’s inside the thought of stubbing herself out that she sees her own light. There is, actually, one thing more beautiful in the world than a woman at the height of her power. It is a woman down on her knees, run ragged and shaken to her core, still refusing to f*cking give up. Rogue spark, on her own, Annie Clark burns on.
Masseduction is out now via Loma Vista. Get it here.