November 6, 2018 / 6:00 pm

St. Vincent – MassEducation

Released October 12, 2018

RATING: 5/7

St. Vincent sheds the neon-clad workings of her critically acclaimed fifth studio album to reveal an intimate look at Annie Clark as she imparts a critical reflection of the artist and art itself.

When Annie Clark released her fifth album as St. Vincent, Masseduction, she sent a shockwave through the music scene. Through undefinable sound effects, short sparkling guitar riffs, and vinyl catsuits, St. Vincent achieved rockstar status. Despite the popularity of this multi-platform extravaganza, the departure from cult artist to superstar felt saccharine to many of her fans; taken aback by her new pop sound. However, one year later, Annie Clark finds herself again in the crosshairs of listener interest with an intimate look at Masseduction. For a career defined by avant-garde and cult, St. Vincent’s latest album MassEducation offers a much-welcomed foil to its predecessor. And the results are sensational.

Recorded over two days at Manhattan’s Reservoir Studios, MassEducation disrobes the neon vinyl clad songs of Masseduction, revealing deeply personal and harrowing accounts of love lost, comically inescapable loneliness, and consumerism. However, this intimate accompaniment also evokes contradictory readings of Clark’s lyrics. Accompanied by her longtime friend and frequent Sufjan Stevens producer Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett on piano, Clark’s voice flies over sweeping piano riffs. On “Savior,” Bartlett dampens the reverberations of the piano strings with his hand, a stylistic nod to John Cage’s exploration of the prepared piano, producing a sound akin to pizzicato strings. The stripped down accompaniment of Masseduction’s title track is hypnotizing, however, it reveals a darker interpretation of the lyrics. Clark claimed in an interview with Pitchfork, that the line “I can’t turn off what turns me on” conveyed the raison d’etre of Masseduction, yet while the piano glides through Charles Mingus style bass lines, Clark’s ominous voice alludes to vulgarity in mainstream media through references like: “Lolita is weeping” (Nabakov’s famous metaphor for American commercial crassness) and “Drinkin’ Manic Panic” (a brand of bright, vivid hair dye associated with teenagers.)

Before its release, Clark said of the album in a handwritten letter, “So here it is—two dear friends playing songs together with the kind of secret understanding one can only get through endless nights in New York City. Enjoy.” This suggests a work that is plainspoken, modest, or even docile. Perhaps unsurprisingly MassEducation is none of these things, rather simultaneously a mature feat of arranging and emotionally affecting.

Lyrics previously lost behind the pop façade now are emboldened by Clark’s honey, husky vocals. The opening number, “Slow Disco,” is more arresting here than both the second to last track on Masseduction and its following club remix, dubbed “Fast Slow Disco.” The line “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?”, that in the club remix comes off as hedonistic glory now takes on the tone of a serious romance evoking a relationship that is caught in a slow dance that has carried on for too long. “Young Lover,” a disco/gothic rock lament for a deteriorating relationship marred by drug use that on Masseduction comes off as an unsuccessful attempt at replicating Katy Perry’s 2010 track, “Circle the Drain,” sheds the repetitive guitar drones to reveal palpable frustration and longing. In songs like “Fear the Future” and “Sugarboy” impressive piano flourishes and crashes effectively convey the diatribe embedded in the lyrics.

St. Vincent has finally crossed the musical Rubicon, so to speak, with the acoustic album MassEducation. The acoustic album has and continues to shed a soft light on an artist’s music, especially once they have climbed the ranks and hot lists. MassEducation does just this, we encounter Annie Clark laid bare in these tracks and even quite literally on the album cover. However, the album serves as much as a rite of passage as it does the end of a musical era for a performer of constantly changing images. It is not difficult to imagine how Masseduction will pave the way for future career triumphs. In its emotional intensity and audacity, Masseduction has indicated to St. Vincent listeners a musical and visual shift. Clark’s personality has seen her seesaw between extremes throughout her catalog and yet listeners are reunited with St. Vincent between the tracks of MassEducation as they knew her a decade ago; vulnerable, confident, bare.