A much shorter version of this review was originally published by Audioxide in October 2017. I was originally going to upload that version here, but I wasn’t so happy with how it turned out because it was both: 1) Rushed, as I initially struggled to find a way into the piece and overcame this with very little time remaining before the deadline; and 2) Mangled in the edit, because I had to excise over one-hundred words to meet the word limit. So, I thought it would be best if I made a few changes here and there to tidy the piece up somewhat. Unencumbered by deadlines, however, I ended up labouring over the bloody thing whenever I attempted to finish it – always adding and revising and tinkering. Of course, the cruel joke of it all is that I’m still not entirely satisfied with it – particularly the section about ‘Pills’, which I fiddled with for a good while because academia has seemingly dulled the rhapsodic part of my brain – but I am, at the very least, sick of the sight of it.
In pursuit of a more pronounced pop aesthetic on Masseduction, her fifth solo album as St. Vincent, Annie Clark elected to replace her long-term producer, John Congleton, with Jack Antonoff, who has recently worked with the likes of Taylor Swift and Lorde. And superficially, at least, it would seem that nothing of her now idiosyncratic sound has been compromised in this new collaboration, as Masseduction appears to be just as gnarled and vivid as any of her previous records. There is, as intended, more of an inclination towards accessible, straightforward synthpop here, and, unfortunately, less of an emphasis on her virtuoso guitar playing, but this album’s wry, sexy, noisy as fuck interpretation of pop nevertheless seems to be of a piece with her work released since 2011’s Strange Mercy. Why, then, does it not work on me as her previous records invariably did? Why, for all its surface pleasures, does it appear somewhat vacant and, dare I say, uninteresting?
After a considerable amount of consternation – necessary, as St. Vincent is responsible for at least two of my favourite records of the previous decade – I have reached the conclusion that Clark and Antonoff simply aren’t getting as much from these songs as they could have, and certainly not as much as Clark and Congleton would have. To be sure, the collaboration between the latter pairing seemed, from the outside at least, as if it was motivated by both an inquisitiveness and a dissatisfaction: by rarely being content with what they had and always striving to find a way to do it better, to take a song further, to reach a higher level of creative expression. Thus, while many of the songs produced during this period were, fundamentally, straightforward singer-songwriter numbers, they were quite obviously developed with care and diligence in the studio. It’s not just that they were wrought from a lavish sonic palette, it’s that they were allowed to unfold in unexpected, circuitous ways, as myriad gnarly details and an untamed, spontaneous sensibility both imbued even the most basic song with a remarkable sense of vitality. Where those earlier songs were often stretched beyond the obvious, however, the same cannot be said of the majority of Masseduction, as Clark and Antonoff regrettably demonstrate only the most cursory interest in adequately developing a song. Take ‘Young Lover’, for example, which plods along a linear path established by a tepid four-on-the-floor beat, until it fizzles out with Clark screeching the song’s title over an innocuous, faux-grand instrumental. The song doesn’t blossom, or build, or lurch; it doesn’t zig when you expect it to zag, or even zag with a wondrous ferocity; perhaps most egregiously, it even forsakes a wonderful descending harmony between Clark’s vocal and her guitar, which offers a more fruitful direction for the song to take. ‘Young Lover’ simply is, until it isn’t. And, in this way, it’s representative of a number of inert, stagnant tracks on Masseduction that seldom deviate from their one governing idea, and are fatally bereft of the level of detail that would embellish or otherwise invigorate those ideas.
Among the mercifully unafflicted, however, is ‘Pills’, which initially adopts the stance of a warped advertising jingle – complete with a peppy, infectious nursery-rhyme inflection – but, halfway through, abruptly collapses into a haunting, theatrical reverie for the remainder of the track. This comedown is significant not only because it provides one of the few instances of genuine movement within a track, and not simply because it allows space for what is easily Clark’s most deeply-felt and animated vocal performance on Masseduction, but because of the astonishing contribution of Kamasi Washington in the final forty-five seconds; quite unlike anything else going on within the mix, the abrasive, wailing paroxysms of his saxophone swell within both the track’s proggy morass and the pit of your stomach, unexpectedly introducing a profound ache that frankly blindsided me. Though this kind of flourish isn’t strictly necessary – the song wouldn’t exactly be diminished if it were absent – it nevertheless delighted me because it displays an imagination that is mostly lacking elsewhere on Masseduction. In attempting to achieve a different kind of emotional flavour in the final moments of ‘Pills’, Clark and Antonoff experiment with an instrument that had not yet been featured in any previous St. Vincent record, and they succeed because they enlisted one of the best players in the game to perform the part. They therefore surprise and challenge the listener by deviating from what are now comfortable stylistic parameters for St. Vincent, by taking a song that little bit further to offer the listener something distinctly new from the project. This is, however, a rare example; beyond Washington’s contribution to ‘Pills’, as well as the gorgeous manipulated vocal that sees out ‘Slow Dance’, the only truly surprising moments on this record are the two tracks that offer drastic stylistic departures for St. Vincent: ‘Sugarboy’, which is glorious, delirious Hi-NRG disco by way of Hot Chip; and ‘New York’, which I’ll conceded is surprising only because it evinces an essentially insipid quality that had previously eluded Clark’s songwriting.
The rest is, as previously mentioned, worryingly of a piece with St. Vincent’s previous couple of records, offering only a flattened-out iteration of the wry, sexy, noisy as fuck interpretation of pop that she had offered previously. Masseduction, then, is comfortable in a way that no St. Vincent record has ever been; it sounds perfectly agreeable because it rehashes what is ultimately a pleasing aesthetic, but fails to attain any level of potency because it does not attempt to evolve that aesthetic – because it so rarely stretches the listener, and because the songs themselves are so infrequently stretched.