St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”

(Photo Credit: Northern Transmissions)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Pills,” “Sugarboy,” “Young Lover”

Annie Clark has big shoes to fill. Her last album, 2014’s “St. Vincent,” was consistently ranked among the best albums of the year, a busy year. The album saw her rise from indie darling touring the festival circuit to playing the season finale of “SNL” and winning a semi-surprise Best Alternative Album at the Grammy’s (ironically, presumed winner Beck also released a new album this week). After all that, “St. Vincent” is my favorite album. Like, ever. All-time. Has been for three years. So “MASSEDUCTION” has high hurdles to clear and, to our baited breaths, it jumps over those hurdles in every way that Annie Clark can think of.

Don’t let opening track “Hang On Me” and lead single “New York” fool you – this is a big album. At 13 tracks and 41 minutes, it packs a whole boxer’s array of punches. Although the opening song is inexplicably lackluster, the album kicks into high gear with the guitar-heavy satire “Pills.” The track’s fuzzy, chomping guitar sounds like an “Actor” lost cut. One of the album’s few disappointments is that this is really the only track where Clark lets loose on guitar, something she still does a little infrequently. But when the album that follows is as good as it is, it’s hardly even missed.

Other standout tracks include “Sugarboy,” with a super catchy and choppy beat that’s sure to rip through audiences in her live show. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is a slight ballad with some unexpected country slide-guitar, stuck right in the middle of the album. “Savior” is a funky and sexy pop song, but one that includes industrial elements (although he doesn’t have a songwriting credit, the album was co-produced by Jack Antonoff, who cowrote and produced a similar, excellent song on Lorde’s album earlier this year). “Fear The Future” hits super hard after the emotional but slight “New York,” with a deafening sound and incredibly anxious lyrics. “Young Lover,” the tenth track, seems like the beginning of the wind-down as, frankly, the song’s first section is dull. But it transforms into a full-bloomed vocal track, the best of the album and one of the best in Clark’s discography. The album’s final song “Smoking Section” is a satisfying conclusion, with Clark repeating “it’s not the end.” The song’s title and placement might be a reference to David Sedaris’s classic essay “The Smoking Section” – let us not forget that Clark’s debut contained references to “Arrested Development” and MAD Magazine.

“MASSEDUCTION” is not without fault, of course. There are rare moments of downtime, in tracks like “Hang On Me,” “Slow Disco,” and, to a lesser extent, the title track. There is also a palpable lack of guitar wizardry. Although Clark’s guitar pops up throughout, the album generally lacks the riffs designed to pummel live audiences to their core. It’s a confounding stylistic choice for someone who is becoming known as one of the best live acts. Still, audiences haven’t seen these songs performed yet, so who’s to say what Clark has planned (also, she’s just free to record whatever she wants, maybe she’s just tired of guitar).

Although not her best overall, this album stands as easily the most cohesive record in the St. Vincent discography. It has the fewest amount of skippable tracks (there’s only two that I’d even consider and I’ve *just* listened to it), it has everything from anxious noise about the future to industrial-funk to genuinely beautiful ballads to satire about the medical industry. I’ve written (in a few places, extensively, sorry) about the impact that Clark’s 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, “Love This Giant,” seemed to have on her confidence as a performer. That newfound confidence shines throughout this entire record, front (back?) and foremost with that album cover. Clark has always been an interesting songwriter, but this album continues her trend of pushing listeners out of their comfort zone with the frequent genre changes and occasionally uncomfortable lyrics.

This album is a borderline-masterpiece, if not one outright. Although it lacks specifically-standout songs like all of her other albums (“Rattlesnake” & “Birth In Reverse,” “Cruel” & “Surgeon,” “The Neighbors” & “Marrow,” “Now, Now” & “Your Lips Are Red), it works as a huge cohesive unit that really doesn’t have much time to cut. It’s a challenging pop album, asking the listener to accept satire, sorrow and directly sexual lyrics amidst their catchy music. This album feels like all of the highs, lows and middles that Clark has been living since and possibly before her last album. This album was likely going to be the one that people really judged Clark on. Her last album is, for all intents and purposes, a breakthrough – so the eye was on what she would do with the exposure. And if this album is what Clark can do under the pressure, then it’s safe to say we’re welcoming in a new legend.

-By Andrew McNally

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Lorde – “Melodrama”

Photo Credit: Genius

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Green Light,” “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Perfect Places”

The first album from New Zealand singer Lorde, 2014’s wonderful instant classic “Pure Heroine,” was a bit of an anomaly. Lorde’s lyrics shadowed the fact that she was literally a teenager – they coupled the life of suburbia with the dreams of luxuries she heard about in Drake and Kanye songs. But musically, the album couldn’t have been further from what a bored teenaged pop singer usually creates. The album was a quiet blast of minimalism, with short, mild songs more in the realm of The xx than anything else. It was a refreshing turn for a young singer. But it also left people wondering whether her follow-up would try to replicate the style, or whether Lorde would grow her music.

Unsurprisingly, Lorde grew. The album’s opening track and lead single, “Green Light,” is a tongue-in-cheek look at this. The opening line, “I do my make-up in somebody else’s car,” could easily come out of a Lorde parody song, and is sung over faint piano. But within a minute the song does literally grow into a big, extremely danceable pop song. This album, in certain ways, could not sound more different than “Heroine.” While Lorde sounded comfortable in that album’s small sound, here she often sounds like she’s trying to free herself from a restraint (often successfully). “Green Light” lacks a breakdown because Lorde sings over it at the same volume she was already going at. On this album she has both more range and more bite. On “Writer in the Dark” she coolly sings “I love you till my breathing stops / I love you till you call the cops on me” over two menacingly out-of-tune piano notes. On “The Louvre,” she surrounds herself with the most orchestral music she’s made, which makes the painful quietness of immediate follow-up “Liability” all the more real.

But the best example of this newfound, punching-up attitude is found on the first half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless.” The “Hard Feelings” portion of the song expands into industrial territory – yes, industrial territory. Lorde’s vocals completely disappear for a noisy interlude that wouldn’t have felt out of place on “Pretty Hate Machine.” It’s a real punch in the gut to hear it halfway into a pop album. It’s worth noting that Lorde worked with Jack Antonoff on this album, a man who isn’t new to elevating female singers and pushing them in new directions. The album, as a whole, is far more musical than before. There are multiple songs with instrumental fade-outs and moments where Lorde gives way to the music behind her. She’s not hidden, though – she still dominates every song in her own ways.

“Melodrama” might be the most appropriately-titled album of the year. While it is taken from a song, the whole album has an umbrella of melodrama to it. Lorde, now 20, seems stuck in the same lyrical ennui that birthed her first album. But here she is more direct while also more unhinged. Gone are the references to diamonds and luxury, the metaphors and vocal inspirations taken from other genres (except the way Lorde sings the chorus in the excellent “The Louvre”) She’s bored in relationships, counting the days until it ends. She’s alone in clubs, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. “Melodrama,” even more than “Heroine,” shows the personal troubles and misunderstood complexity of being a young woman. And although she may be native to New Zealand, the general ‘stuck’ feeling throughout wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a Midwestern act. Many of the album’s songs could easily be translated into the music of a young but learned country singer.

Lorde’s growth as a singer is completely natural on this album, and it isn’t even necessarily a growth that would usually be called “maturity.” Her image was so well solidified on “Heroine” and it came off so earnestly that this album feels more like a reaction, rather than a separate entity. And on a bigger and simpler note, it also proves that Lorde isn’t going to be a one-off (not that we were particularly worried). “Melodrama” is a surprisingly well-rounded package, one that highlights and intensifies the emotions she had already conquered, while also pushing her volume and ambition levels far past what listeners were used to. A week removed from Katy Perry’s disastrous push into new ground, we get the album we might deserve – a pop singer pushing herself to the edge of her capabilities without intentionally going overboard.

-By Andrew McNally

Taylor Swift – “1989”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Out of the Woods” “Shake It Off”

Taylor Swift’s first full foray into pop music is a beautiful mess, an experimentation in something that’s never an experiment. For the most part, “1989” is standard-fare pop, behind equal parts music and vocals. Swift’s music really isn’t any different, it’s just more pop-based. It doesn’t always work, but it’s more than enjoyable enough to make up for it’s weaker moments.

“1989” plays like a typical pop album. It flows through songs upbeat and ballad, with fairly standard lyrics. Opener “Welcome to New York” is a little slow to open a pop album, but it’s got a strong synth beat and the lyrics about the country’s biggest city mark a snarky metaphorical change from small town country. The album is held up by strong synth rhythms throughout. “Style” is helped by a synth beat, as is the Imogen Heap-collaborative finale, “Clean.” And, massive smash “Shake It Off” has a pretty strong rhythm to it too.

Swift’s lyrics are pretty self-serving. She knows her audience, her lyrics pander most to pseudo-literary young women, the type of songs that are relatable to a girl in high school but have a poetic aura. If Swift’s lyrics didn’t win you over before, they probably won’t here. They’re not bad – just not for everyone. “Shake It Off” is one of her stronger songs, rallying against sexist portrayals of her relationships in the media. “Clean” marks an interesting simile between a break-up and curing addiction. But the strongest lyrical song is probably “Out of the Woods,” a track with music written by Jack Antonoff. It deals with relationships, as always, but it’s more subversive and just a little darker than listeners are used to.

What makes this album different is principle. It’s: “Hey, T Swift’s doing something kinda different,” and that works for it. Transpose these songs into a different singer’s catalog and half of them wouldn’t register any sort of response, but Swift is experimenting in conventionality. And what results is an imperfect record that feels like it wants to be imperfect. It’s cohesive and tight, and asks to be weighed as a whole instead of by individual track. It’s kind of a mess, but it succeeds because of it. It’s a fitful new direction for Swift to go in and it’s easy to forgive the mistakes.

-By Andrew McNally

Side note: This review took a while partially because I just don’t have time, but partially because I had the stream the album track by track via Tumblr. I get the marketing strategy of pulling it off Spotify but I don’t necessarily agree with it. It doesn’t sit well with fans.