Of the wondrous “New York,” the lead single off Masseduction, Annie Clark recently said it was the first entry from her swath of creations under the name St. Vincent that she listened to and believed it could be someone’s favorite song. Modesty aside, that might be a baffling notion given the spiky feats of musical genius Clark has already delivered. But it also speaks to a willful evolution she’s undertaken across her past two albums. In reflecting on the material on her prior record — the best in show St. Vincent —Clark recounted the way touring with David Byrne opened her up to the sheer enjoyment that could be stirred up in audiences. She makes great art. Maybe she can make favorite songs, too. Even the title speaks to bringing a teeming group of people under her sway.
Masseduction, the fifth St. Vincent album, performs the dazzling magic act of sounding more commercial without particularly compromising. “New York” after all, hinges on repeated variants of the lyrics “You’re the only mother fucker in the city who can handle me,” all delivered with a charming tenderness. It may be polished, but its not in retreat, simpering for affection. For a co-producer, Clark enlisted Jack Antonoff, who has portions of Taylor Swift’s 1989 on his resume, but the music only slips so far down the spectrum to candy-colored pop. Across the album, tracks are closer to the Lemonade model: layered, dense, confessional, confrontational, intoxicating.
“I know you’re probably sleeping/ I got this thing I keep thinkin’/Yeah, I admit I’ve been drinkin’/ The void is back and I’m blinkin’,” Clark sings on album opener “Hang on Me,” over synthesized waves of sound that make it seem as if the song is edging down a very long, potentially treacherous hallway. It quickly establishes the way the album is going to offer personal revelation beyond what Clark has allowed previously. (St. Vincent started with an impish diversion about naked cavorting with desert reptiles.) But as it unfolds, “Hang on Me” also makes it clear that Clark’s talent for sonic invention is also moving into unprecedented territory. The music undulates and swerves, inviting scrutiny and repelling easy categorization.
The second track is “Pills,” which initially seems more familiar, trading in Clark’s sexy robot act with an almost nursery rhyme repetitiveness (if a nursery rhyme would casually reference “Pills to fuck,” that is). Then, at the midway point, that shiny sheath falls away like a stainless steel theater curtain, suddenly transforming the song into an almost Beatlesque psychedelic swirl. It’s an assertion of intent. Clark will take songs anywhere her riotously creative soul sees fit.
The album is a procession of grand discovery. There’s the rigorously blendered dance music of “Fear the Future” and the elegant drama of “Slow Disco” (which vaguely recalls Kate Bush). Even when Clark veers toward the potentially trite, she salvages the song with the purity of her intent and the offhand invention she brings to every detail. At first, “Los Ageless” strikes me as a little too easy in its punny social commentary, but my resistance is entirely disarmed by its forward thrust and the vulnerable ache of the chorus: “How can anybody have you?/ How can anybody have you and lose you?/ How can anybody have you and lose you/ And not lose their mind?”
Clark’s instincts as a creator are unassailable, and her capability as performer keeps up. Her vocals have a crystalline clarity that’s been in evidence before, but there are added glimmers of character and warmth that are new. It’s another act of engagement, one more component to reach out to the listener. Masseduction is unmistakably an extension of the icy art of earlier St. Vincent albums, but there’s a newfound openness that’s thrilling. The closing track, “Smoking Section,” features Clark’s wavering, fragile voice repeatedly singing, “It’s not the end.” That seems right. Masseduction, I’d wager, is only the beginning.