Annie Clark, the guitar-deconstructing art-pop troubadour who rose out of anonymous membership in the Polyphonic Spree, is no stranger to examining bad’s relationship with good. That’s literally how one of her best songs, 2011’s “Cheerleader” begins: “I’ve had good times with some bad guys.” But the chorus turns defiant, declaring, “But I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more,” with the “I” winding up a few times — “I, I, I, I ” — because the rest needs to come out at full strength. Six years later, her refusal to further enable bad guys sounds like Mira Sorvino or Asia Argento refusing to stay silent about Harvey Weinstein any longer. It sounds like half of my Facebook friends setting their statuses to “Me too” in depressing solidarity, baring their burdens just to prove in numbers what many men refuse to believe.
On Friday, Masseduction, Clark’s fifth solo album under the name St. Vincent, and first since she won the Grammy for best alternative album in 2015, was released to the usual fire-emoji accolades, but they fit even more cozily than usual. It’s her most accomplished and sharply realized album by some distance, in no small part because it fleshes out the themes of “Cheerleader” in full Technicolor on tracks like “Savior.” The verses detail various fetish outfits her lover requests her presence in, and even though you know things are going to go sour, she doesn’t downplay their sexiness (“You dress me up in a nurse’s outfit/ It rides and sticks to my thighs”) because she doesn’t blame the sex.
This time, she rejects not just the cheerleader role but something far weightier. Like Javier Bardem in Mother!, the lover can only respond “please,” mechanically, one-dimensionally, as they try to take more of Clark’s being than they can have. She may be lamenting the sturdiness of her own boundaries, but they are clear when she agrees to “keep you on your best behavior” only via ruler spanking, not by being anyone’s “savior” or “martyr.” Just because you’re lucky enough to access her body doesn’t mean you get her soul, and she’s not going to make the sex less appealing just to prove this point. (It’s worth noting that Clark told the New Yorker she remained sober and celibate during the recording of Masseduction, perhaps to rely on memories she’d already had time to reflect on, rather than flooding them with new data.)
Many, many pop artists (most notably women), have made a record about sex as liberation, sex as escape. But with Masseduction, Clark has made a record that captures sex’s joyful essence without pretending it’s a panacea. The coitus she details on what she implies is her most autobiographical record is in no way portrayed to sound like it solves all of her problems. (Said problems include drinking and worrying that her plane (and then taxi) will crash in the opener “Hang on Me,” or “when the war [will] start anew” in the appropriately titled “Fear the Future.”) It’s a delicate tightrope to walk in a year where subtlety seems like a relic from a simpler time, a time when the president was, say, someone else.
“This is an album that extracts the black humor from the auteur’s experiences with colorful sex and even more colorful pills ,without demonizing either.”
By deflating sex’s mythical power without just vilifying sex itself, Clark is expressing an emotional complexity that was previously hidden beneath her restrained, middlebrow sensibilities. Witness how the title tune’s resounding chorus of “I can’t turn off what turns me on” sounds both panicked and euphoric. When she sings, “I hold you like a weapon” to complete the couplet, it moves the needle no closer to positive or negative because it’s both. The wires get crossed, the backing vocal changes from “mass seduction” to “mass destruction,” and it still sounds like ecstasy. This is St. Vincent’s most lifelike record to date precisely because there’s no mistaking her balancing act. Masseduction puts benevolence and evil inside the same people because that’s where those forces reside.
Of course, it’s not always so heavy, and first single “New York” is just a loving ode to the one that got away, even if Clark “last-strawed [them] on Eighth Avenue” — though, in context, it’s hard to tell how badly she needed to break things off at the time. When she sings, “But for you, darling, I’d do it all again,” maybe she shouldn’t.
Not everything on Masseduction is what it seems. It’s hard to tell whether the sprightly, color-guard chanting of “Sugarboy” is detailing BDSM or an abusive relationship (“Got a crush from kicked-in teeth”). The jingle-like “Pills” comes off sarcastic on the surface, but it appears to offer sincere gratitude toward meds for keeping her functional, helping her to give head, make money and more. (The album’s most loving moment of screwing with us is having Clark’s ex, Cara Delevingne, sing that song’s hook.)
This is an album that extracts the black humor from the auteur’s experiences with colorful sex and even more colorful pills, without demonizing either. In fact, it’s pretty damn good at placing responsibility solely on the human decision-makers who inhabit these 13 tunes, particularly the target of “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” who responds to Clark saying, “Let me think,” by yelling at her. She takes on the voice of Johnny later, singing, “Annie, how could you do this to me?”
The person it’s based on is probably not named Johnny, and they probably didn’t actually set their hotel on fire, though they sounds like a recognizable person. The auteur doesn’t play dumb about why Johnny was in her life in the first place, and doesn’t see any reason to apologize for playing nurse with them before she realized they had to go. “I hope you find peace,” is the last thing she sings to Johnny, and it sounds genuine. But she’s not playing cheerleader anymore.
On 2014’s “Birth in Reverse,” Clark put household chores (like taking out the garbage) and masturbating on the same wavelength, and here she paints even drearier things to be equally mundane. Masseduction is about doing what it takes to get through the day, and sometimes that does mean fucking the wrong person. It’s not an album for people who believe that’s as it should be, just people who’ve been there at some point. After all, isn’t sex just as much of a distraction as listening to a record?
Oct. 17, 2017, 1:50 p.m.: This story has been updated.