For some fans, the wait for Annie Clark’s fifth album as St. Vincent started 10 months before its release. “I think it’ll be the deepest, boldest work I’ve ever done,” Clark told Guitar World just days before 2016 ended. She certainly isn’t alone in thinking this: shortly after she announced MASSEDUCTION, Buzzfeed and NYLON hailed the album as her best yet.
Many long-time St. Vincent fans would retort that each of her albums, upon its release, has felt like her best yet. As expected, then, MASSEDUCTION’s explosions of the futuristic guitar pop that she mastered on 2014’s St. Vincent, which transformed her from an indie darling to someone with enough clout to date Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart, are gratifying, strange and addicting. What’s unexpected are the ways she keeps her music compelling this go-round.
Clark has long been known as a truly formidable guitarist; she can shred when she wants to, but she tends to relegate her prowess to crunch-smashed riffs that growl like a motorcycle engine. MASSEDUCTION is the first St. Vincent album to push her guitars to the side; here, she favors flashy drum machines and roaring synth patterns. Clark will likely never abandon the guitar entirely, but these days, she seems more content to use it as texture rather than foundation. It slashes away at the background of the peppy title track’s salacious chorus, but it only approaches coming into focus during the song’s volcanically catchy outro; likewise, the bass-heavy guitars on “Young Lover” serve to blister this anthem’s already battered mix of pulsing drums and unsettling synth drone. Clark’s monster guitar work still occasionally leads the charge: the intro of the earth-exploding “Fear the Future” stands up to even some of 2009 album Actor’s most terrifying six-string runs, and the midsection of early highlight “Pills” is a low E-string earthquake.
Just as Clark takes new approaches to guitar on MASSEDUCTION, she goes for an unprecedented level of candor in her lyrics. Sure, the chorus of “Los Ageless”—“how could anybody have you and lose you/how could anybody have you and lose you and not lose your mind too?”—is up there with classic witticisms “they could take or leave you/so they took you/and they left you” (Strange Mercy’s “Cruel”) and “I thought you were like a dog/but you made a pet of me” (St. Vincent’s “Bring Me Your Loves”). But that’s about it as Clark’s staple finger-twiddling, clever poetry goes; here, she sings nakedly about finding a lover overdosed (“Young Lover”), gender fluidity (“Sugarboy”), a long-term friendship’s gradual dissolution (“Happy Birthday Johnny”) and suicide (“Smoking Section”). Placed last on the album, “Smoking Section” is the rawest of the album’s handful of piano ballads; Clark practically begs to die as what she’s called her “saddest album” draws to a close.
Not that MASSEDUCTION is all dim and dark. “Sugarboy” might be the most-straight up fun song Clark’s ever written, and the quirky synth line that dashes its second verse reappears on the next track, the hooky, vicious “Los Ageless.” Immediately after this song comes the overwhelmingly heartbroken “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” which, for its midsection, borrows an eerie, melancholy melody from the haunting “Los Ageless” outro. It later turns out that “Dancing With a Ghost,” the first St. Vincent song since Actor’s “The Sequel” that’s more of a sketch than a full thought, is almost entirely this melody.
MASSEDUCTION is the first St. Vincent album to reference itself; sometimes, this may be unintentional or just implied. The borderline incomprehensible confessions Clark mumbles over the outro of “Los Ageless,” as well as the last verse and outro of “Savior,” feel connected to the way she mutters “I am a lot like you/I am alone like you,” all while a computerized voice shouts “boys!” in response to the first line and “girls!” to the second, on “Sugarboy.” Although MASSEDUCTION can be exceptionally heart-on-sleeve, these indecipherable passages suggest that maybe she’s still learning to fully pull back the curtain; after all, she didn’t admit her dad went to prison, partially inspiring Strange Mercy, until this album cycle.
At other times, Clark really just goes for it without worrying about whether her words might sound trite. “Pills,” which transitions from a Kamasi Washington-featuring party jam to a distraught slab of gonzo-pop introspection, ends with Clark belting, “Everyone you know will all go away.” And hell, she sells it, even though it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t sound out of place in a bad horror film. Though she’s always been the winkingly mysterious type who would repeatedly sing the melodramatic lyric “it’s not the end” as a song literally ends (“Smoking Section”), even in her hands, this lyric could come off as cloying. Instead, it sounds utterly crushing.
St. Vincent has always been a project defined by risk—the daring falsetto she brilliantly manages to nail during the outro of “Young Lover” is possibly the biggest vocal chance she’s ever taken—and on MASSEDUCTION, Clark is at her most fearless. The new tricks she’s trying—focusing on synths and drum machines rather than guitars, throwing in some piano ballads for good taste, weaving a repeated melodic fill throughout the album, baring her soul in a new way—represent the biggest stylistic leap she’s taken since ditching the diligent orchestral arrangements of Actor for the grayscale, depressed intimacy of Strange Mercy. On MASSEDUCTION, Clark remains as unpredictable as ever, though there’s one thing fans will have gotten right: so far, at least, Annie Clark has proven incapable of writing anything less than a knockout pop song.