Since her last album, a prickly self-titled effort, St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) became a movie director. Her contribution to the horror anthology film XX was "The Birthday Party," a piece of horror comedy that was fairly short on in-your-face horror themes; Only looking back on it later do you realise how messed up it is. She takes a similar approach with her new record MASSEDUCTION. It's the closest she's ever hewn to pop music, but her delivery betrays the soundscapes she's created.
St. Vincent has always had a tricky relationship with pop music. Her steely melodies resonate, but her guitar blares and her lyrics sting. Here, guitars are in shorter supply in favour of thumping drums and shiny synths. Clark's voice, though, hits each note with either a sneer or a sigh, colouring the record with resignation and melancholy.
When the approach works, it's spectacular. The coast-spanning duo of singles that preceded the record - "New York" and "Los Ageless" - are a pair of breakup songs made even more affecting by their contradictory parts. "New York"s melody is effortless and timeless, particularly when Clark begs "You're the only motherfucker in this city who can stand me." Underpinning the lonely piano accompaniment is a kick drum that resembles a heart fluttering in panic. "Los Ageless" takes that juxtaposition one step further, its melody almost carnivalesque as Clark asks "How could anyone have you and lose you and not lose their mind?"
Less successful are tracks like "Pills," where a spritely melody can't sustain lyrics that are ultimately quite trite and that fall back on ineffectual profanity. One of the key components of St. Vincent's best music has always been a distinctive dynamism - barely controlled equilibrium between noise and beauty wherein the silken femininity of her voice combined in unexpected ways with the strength of her playing and her stance. Here, she often feels overwhelmed - barrelled over, even - by the maximalism of the music.
Everything here plays out on a larger scale, in keeping with the garish colours and frankness of the album's visuals. That approach throws into sharp relief certain great moments across the record - the gorgeous opener "Hang on Me," the otherworldly voices on the otherwise forgettable "Sugarboy," the climactic high note that Clark unleashes on "Young Lover" and the beautiful, string-drenched "Slow Disco" - meaning that the album ultimately feels like more than the sum of its parts. Missteps on individual songs can be overlooked when St. Vincent is so willing to spread out creatively.
The theatrical closer "Smoking Section" is like a miniature suite detailing everything that St. Vincent is capable of musically. It brings the lurking themes throughout the record together, from the loneliness of "New York," to the frenzied self-affirmation of the title track, to the yearning of the ballad, "Happy Birthday, Johnny" and brings them both literally and figuratively to a cliffhanger. "It's not the end," Clark sings, her voice as light as rising steam.
It's interesting that MASSEDUCTION is St. Vincent's most extroverted work, but also her most personal. It may not feel as cohesive or as inventive from song-to-song as her best work, but there's more than enough here to make it worth repeat visits.
MASSEDUCTION is out on CD, vinyl, and digital formats on Friday October 13th.