By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
Rock n’ roll reactionaries have been lamenting the “Death of Rock” since at least the 1980s when the synthesizer supplanted the guitar as a sure-fire hit-maker in the pop charts. For them, rock’s proud lineage deceased with either Ronnie Van Zant or John Bonham, only to be resuscitated in the mid-80s and then promptly inhumed by Guns ‘N Roses’ fleeting popularity. The exact dates and other minutiae may vary from person to person, but there remains one common denominator in the abrogation of mainstream rock music from the zeitgeist: the absence of an immediate guitar deity.
Despite her indisputable virtuosity, when Annie Clark released her debut album Marry Me in the summer of 2007 under the name St. Vincent, she wasn’t hailed as the next Slash or Jimmy Page. The music was too unconventional to establish her as guitar rock’s latest torchbearer when the genre lionizes recycled Zeppelin chords, a cult of personality sense of bravado, and little else in terms of nuance. Nevertheless, for the next decade, Clark would continue crafting angular, labyrinthine guitar lines to match her songs’ outré fusion of synth pop and art rock, despite a lack of recognition from the music industry (with some exceptions). But on Masseduction, Annie scales back her guitar-centric approach to instrumentation and reveals that her talent for penning both emotionally rich and emboldening songs did not hinge solely on her trademark sinuous-yet-jagged licks.
Without her restless noodling, St. Vincent runs the risk of sacrificing her musical identity. After four albums of laser-precision guitar gymnastics, Clark has established herself as indie rock’s preeminent soloist, and to largely abandon the instrument can translate to heresy for her purist fans. To fill the gaping void in Masseduction, though, Annie and producer Jack Antonoff flood the album with synths. Ranging from pulsating warmth, as on Hang on Me, to the metallic frenzy of Sugarboy, Masseduction all but compensates for the notable absence of her unparalleled guitar riffing.
It is, however, ultimately this reliance on the synthetic that stymies the album. Take the song Pills, for example. Before the track is redeemed by its stripped-down bridge, Pills abuses Antonoff’s programmed drums in an arrangement that evokes neither originality nor self-awareness. Masseduction may also revel too often in the slow-burn on some of the record’s quieter numbers, but doing so often allows for Clark’s lyrics to shine as they were intended.
Masseduction teems less with sobering revelations than with fallen-scale understandings. On Happy Birthday, Johnny, the braggadocian enfant terrible from 2014’s Prince Johnny is finally recognized as the helpless cherub he’s always been. With Savior, Clark makes clear the divide between sex and salvation: “Honey, I can’t be your savior/ Love you to the grave and farther/ Honey, I am not your martyr.” By the penultimate track Slow Disco, Annie is forced to reckon with her reckless past: “There’s blood in my ears and a fool in the mirror/ And the pain of mistakes couldn’t get any clearer.” In the wake of a personal battle with anxiety and depression, as well as a public breakup with a “very famous person,” Clark finds herself taking stock of her life and arriving at substantive conclusions here on the album.
But the purpose of Masseduction is not didactic, nor even necessarily cathartic. Instead, it’s simply the scrupulous examination of a singer’s triumphs and losses, romantic or otherwise. Just as fundamental as the album’s recollections of both failed and resilient relationships is its sense of location. When juxtaposed with one another, Masseduction’s first two singles New York and Los Ageless create a continental ode to the allures and detriments of the two coastal linchpins. New York serves as a jeremiad of the city’s loneliness without a partner, while Los Ageless wrestles with L.A.’s bifurcated reputation as a parasitic bastion of hedonism and a tantalizing fountain of youth. Outside of the reified verve of these cities, St. Vincent figures smaller, more minute settings as personal zeniths and nadirs, whether they be the safeguarded bedroom on Fear the Future or an insular table inside the underpopulated smoking section of a restaurant on the album’s closing track. Big or small, Annie Clark is able to capture the mien of a setting without compromising any of its emotional integrity.
Clark made the grievous mistake of declaring the album her “deepest, boldest work [she’s] ever done,” in an interview to preface Masseduction’s release. In doing so, she immediately invited detractors to nitpick at her songs in search of foibles and other potential points of denouncement. Unfortunately for these critics, the album affirms that St. Vincent is still able to pen challenging, engaging songs even without her formerly omnipresent guitar. And while it may not strike every listener as the “boldest” record she’s ever made, Masseduction will allay any fears that Annie Clark is, to paraphrase James Murphy, “losing her edge.”