By Melissa Gauger
St. Vincent’s fifth studio album Masseduction could be referred to by many names: a lavishly smart pop album, a collection of the world’s most depressing lyrics, another record displaying Annie Clark’s knack for sublime artistry, etc. But despite embodying all of these certain qualities, at its core, Masseduction is truly an introspective look into Clark’s personal life in all its heart-wrenching beauty. She, diving into heartbreak, drug use, and mental health, holds back nothing from the listeners.
The first single, “New York,” a quaint ballad, brutally admits, “I have lost a hero / I have a lost a friend / But for you darling / I’d do it all again.” Through the sweeping instrumentals, the imagery Clark provides is astounding; she sounds resigned, as if standing alone on a busy corner in a frigid New York City winter. Maybe she hopes she’ll see that someone crossing the street and they’ll reunite again. But she knows, deep down, that hope is utterly empty. And we, listening along, know that to be true, although we hope a better future awaits Annie Clark.
Undoubtedly, the song’s counterpart, “Los Ageless,” is one of the album’s centerpieces. Although both tracks deal with a breakup, each song approaches the topic differently. Here, Clark, over restless guitar and sweet, powerful synth, delivers one of the album’s most memorable lines: “How could anybody have you / And not lose their minds too?” At its surface, “Los Ageless” is an unforgettable festival-ready pop song, full of catchy hooks and heart-racing beats. But listen in further and listeners find a lamentation of lost love and heartbreaking denial. Her quietly defeated voice barely whispers at the end, “I try to write you a love song, but it comes out a lament.”
Sadness, manifested in a thousand formats, follows every track on Masseduction. Despite upbeat, sugary synths and guitar, lyrics carry the weight of Annie Clark’s many misfortunes. The frantic “Pills” boasts a happy-go-lucky pace as Clark casually muses on a past experience with sleeping pills and other medications. She creates a magical juxtaposition; reminiscent of a cheerfully obnoxious television jingle, Clark chants, “Pills to wake, pills to sleep / pills, pills, pills every day of the week.”
Meanwhile, “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” an alleged follow-up to St. Vincent’s “Prince Johnny,” watches Clark’s friendship fall apart. But yet, the melody could have easily boasted a happier message, rather than insinuating Clark sitting alone with a single candle and an uneaten birthday cake.
Such is the charm of Masseduction: the music sounds like it belongs to another sentiment, a happier emotion, but the lyrics draw us backwards into darkness. Clark makes no attempt to show us a brighter side to life; she lays her plights out in the open, raw and bleeding and painful. I have always believed that pain, although terrible, can bring about great art; St. Vincent’s work on Masseduction continues to validate my claim.
Perhaps the most vulnerable moments appear at the album’s close,
with the mesmerizing “Slow Disco” and “Smoking Section.” The music suddenly loses its fast-paced, sugary charm for a resigned, melancholic string section. “Take my hand from your hand / leave you dancing with a ghost,” Clark sings on “Slow Disco,” and her voice is so delicate I wonder if she might be crying. She leaves her love behind, as she knows she must, but it is abundantly clear she doesn’t want to.
We see a vulnerable side of Clark made wholly visible – the fear of loneliness, the pain of continual heartbreak, the struggle with mental health and depression. It is in these last few tracks she truly opens herself to us, in which she truly opens her heart to reveal the chasms of misfortune within. It is here I found myself truly emotional; I felt myself choking back the very tears I felt Clark wiping away.
She closes with the painfully raw “Smoking Section,” a song even more emotionally distressing than the rest of Masseduction. She contemplates death, ultimately deciding against it. She reflects on love. But these “positive” thoughts still barely offers the audience a consolation. As her voice fades into blackness, she whispers, “It’s not the end,” but the words sound more like they’re meant to convince Clark rather than the listener.