There’s a group of shots in the video for ‘Los Ageless’, the second single from MASSEDUCTION, that I find hypnotic: in amongst the shots of boldly-coloured props and surreal botox procedures, St Vincent stands with her guitar, not playing it, but getting ready to: she looks at the fretboard, or moves her hands into position. We can hear the guitar line, but it’s a long time before we see it. The music you’re hearing is not the music you’re seeing. It’s just another fake. With St Vincent, you have to look a little deeper.
If this seems high-concept, let me first say that MASSEDUCTION is a true pop album, possibly St Vincent’s first. Most of the songs were co-written and produced with Jack Antonoff, who you’ll have heard on recent singles by Taylor Swift, Lorde, Fifth Harmony; it has handclaps, vocoders and whirling synths on the same songs as Kamasi Washington saxophones, Jenny Lewis guest vocals and guitar virtuoso turns. Far from the uninspired generality of most writing-room pop, though, it’s also a personal album. In one press release, Annie Clarke (the woman behind the ‘St Vincent’ name) announced that ‘if you want to know about my life, listen to this record’, which is a surprising statement to make about an album whose iconography has been so steeped in irony and aesthetic distance, in disembodied buttocks and painful neons.
A lot of what’s personal, I think, comes from Clark’s own closeness to the subjects she sings about. On the lean and biting ‘Los Ageless’, she satirises a dog-eat-dog and style-over-substance Hollywood culture with nightmarish precision, but also asks ‘How could anyone have you and lose you and not lose your mind?’ – whether she’s addressing the city or a lover wrapped up in it is hard to tell. ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ is a heartfelt letter to a friend who’s been chewed up by the world, and in ‘New York’ pivots heartbreakingly from a speaker who is living the dream (‘the only mother****er in the city who can handle me’) to one whose friends have turned on her because of her fame (‘you’re the only mother****er in the city who’d forgive me’). Cities like LA and New York become characters in the stories Clark tells, and personal/public boundaries start to blur; Johnny, Los Ageless, the young lover, the villains, the killers, the wasted, the wretched and the scorned are all addressed on equal terms, as if the album is a diary entry disguised as a set of love letters.
Wide as the album’s focus is, though, it never becomes polemic. ‘Pills’, for example, with its jingly refrain of ‘Pills to wake / Pills to wake / Pills, pills, pills, every day of the week’ (actually a guest vocal from Clark’s ex-girlfriend, Cara Delevigne), doesn’t rail against the pharmaceutical industry but instead records Clark’s feelings during a year ‘suspended in air’: the difficulties of touring life are framed as a difficulty sleeping, compressing an issue into a perfectly-formed, radio-friendly diamond. ‘I am a lot like you (boys) / I am alone like you (girls)’, sings Clark on ‘Sugarboy’, turning from boys to girls repeatedly in her search for companionship, slyly encapsulating a familiarly queer internal dialogue as we dance to the Talking Heads synth breaks.
The genius of the album, for me, is that it matches thematic density with catchiness. In the days since I first heard it I’ve been putting it on again and again, needing to hear a hook as much as I want to understand it. Clark’s a genius of many kinds, and her lyrics are whip-smart, especially when set against a pure pop background that shows without telling. St Vincent’s been at the top of her game for a while now, and MASSEDUCTION is a record that knows it: slick, compelling, cleverer than you, and singable as hell.