Ten years after she released her debut album as St. Vincent , Annie Clark makes her decisive move into mainstream pop with "Masseduction." She does it in the ways St. Vincent has always worked: accomplished, self-conscious, precise, unblinking, completely in control and exactly as revealing as she wants to be. "I am a lot like you/boys/I am alone like you/girls," she sings over tense electropop in "Sugarboy," bonding with listeners even as she acknowledges her separation.
"Masseduction" teams St. Vincent with a hitmaking producer and songwriter, Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Taylor Swift, Fun.). Ms. Clark's voice has always been inviting, a silky mezzo-soprano that can whisper breathy confidences, turn sweetly deadpan or open outward to portray longing and ache, and she uses it as strategically as an actress would, inhabiting characters who may or may not be like her. She writes shapely, boldly arching melodies, and with Mr. Antonoff's help, she savors their drama on "Masseduction." Most of the new songs frame her voice with synthesizer lines and programmed beats that promise pop transparency and impact.
But true to the rest of the St. Vincent catalog — this is her fifth solo studio album — "Masseduction" stays poised between passion and artifice, trusting listeners to decrypt its paradoxes. From the beginning, St. Vincent's music and visuals have been curated as meticulously as any arena-pop fashion plate or Instagram influencer, yet as inscrutably as any art-rocker since David Bowie.
"Masseduction" (like Bowie's album "Let's Dance") clears away some of the musical eccentricities of St. Vincent's previous albums. She largely sets aside the math-rock guitar thickets of her early indie-rock, and she touches only occasionally on the elegant chamber-pop that she deployed for contrast. But "Masseduction" doesn't try to reduce Ms. Clark to a typical pop character, or to limit her to adolescent flirtations and fantasies. She's a grown-up, fascinated by personas, gender roles, connections, obligations, self-destructive behavior and looming mortality. And even if she wants to reach the masses with "Masseduction," St. Vincent remains proudly plastic, in many senses of the word: fabricated, malleable, versatile, sometimes impervious.
On "Masseduction," Ms. Clark sings with aplomb about mounting pressures and fears. She addresses her own growing fame eagerly and mockingly. She also faces up to dread and desire, and she questions the parts she plays, particularly the romantic ones.
In the album's title song, robotic voices rhyme "mass eduction" and "mass destruction" while she sings about being torn between temptation and conscience: "I can't turn off what turns me on," she sings in tones both desperate and sultry. In "Savior," over slow, squeezed-down funk, she complains, archly, about wearing ill-fitting fetish costumes to "keep you on your best behavior." And as "Young Lover" climbs toward a heroic, airborne chorus, she portrays a partner sinking into addictions: "I wish that I was your drug," she declares.
She's bicoastal when she considers her career. "New York," which hints at Billy Joel's piano chords, fondly recalls less pampered times on a less gentrified Lower East Side, while the slowly strutting "Los Ageless" is a cynical vision of Hollywood where "mothers milk their young," but where she also mourns a lost love: "How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?" In the mockingly perky "Pills," she starts out as a jet-setting, pill-popping star, but ends up singing a power-ballad anthem for the "wretched, wasted and scorned."
But what really enfolds "Masseduction" are fear and the prospect of death. The album begins with "Hang on Me," a late-night call — at first just thumping and buzzing, later chiming — from a scratchy-voiced, drunken singer who can't stop thinking about crashing taxis and planes: "You and me, we're not from this world," she finally decides. And the album ends with "Smoking Section," a piano waltz full of thoughts about immolation and hope. It concludes, with floating pedal-steel guitar lines, with Ms. Clark repeating, "It's not the end." This isn't just an attempt to maneuver St. Vincent toward pop's big payoffs. It's also a push toward making big-time pop deeper, and darker.
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