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