By Reece McCormack
Some artists use the guitar like a melee weapon: they strike blindly, swooping at the air around them, in the hope that one thrust will connect and draw blood. Others employ their axe as a thickening agent, bulking out their sound and fattening the livestock before it’s sent out for slaughter.
Neither has ever been St. Vincent's style. The artist also known as Annie Clark turns her six-string into a coordinated missile attack, striking down her mortal subjects from the heavens. Clark uses her guitar like a finite resource. As punctuation. From the violent surges on her 2007 debut's “Your Lips Are Red” to the repetitive stabs of Strange Mercy’s “Chloe in the Afternoon,” (2011), it’s become her musical John Hancock.
This methodology applies to every instrument on 2017's Masseduction, a musical tour-de-force that, in time, may very well prove to be St. Vincent’s masterpiece. It’s a sexy, loud, chaotic, kaleidoscopic, maximalist, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of record. All of those adjectives should make for quite the contradiction, but miraculously they don’t. Across the LP's thirteen songs, not a programmed beat, background yelp, gunfire drum fill, distorted guitar explosion, sax screech, stuttering synth, chiming mellotron or crunching robot death lurch (2:43 on “Pills,” if you're interested), is a millisecond out of place. Codas - such as on “Los Ageless” - jump out from the left field, as haunting as they are surprising. Guitar solos hit like epinephrine injections. If Masseduction feels like the culmination of years of methodical sound curation, it’s because that’s exactly what it is.
Masseduction is also easily - and again, against all logic - Clark at her most accessible, gunning for the mainstream. Instead of flattening out her art-rock idiosyncrasies, Masseduction feels like the climax of everything St. Vincent has crafted on so far, fashioned to make her futuristic musical blend appeal to the widest audience and tell the most personal tales in her catalog. “Too few of our old crew left on Astor… so if I trade our 'hood for some Hollywood?” she asks on “New York,” a lyric indicative of the album as a whole. These are stories of the years when everything breaks down - when things time-out, relationships go bad, drugs stop working and all the good memories are only accessible through the prism of pain. A testament to the strength and honesty of the record’s songwriting is just how beautifully its acoustic reworking translates on MassEducation, an intimate collaboration with pianist Thomas Bartlett in which these songs soar with quiet poignancy.
Masseduction, still St. Vincent’s most recent proper studio effort, threatens to cast a shadow over the rest of her career. But maybe that's the point. This classic is the sound of artistic ascension. It’s the sound of years of experience, both professional and personal, coalescing. It’s Annie Clark bursting at the seams, and yet incredibly - astoundingly - managing to seize grip of all the exploding parts.
The St. Vincent Bandbox includes the album of your choice, plus a 16-page, career-spanning StV zine and an exclusive St. Vincent photo print!
Reece McCormack is a writer based in Gloucestershire, England. His fiction has recently appeared in recent editions of Carve and New England Review.
Photo: Nedda Afsari