October 18, 2017 | Arts and Culture
Talking Through St. Vincent’s Return
Joshua Lu: So as I was preparing for this discussion, I remembered an old article from The Brown Daily Herald that I copyedited a couple years back (“St. Vincent crushes Lupo’s with intensity in dynamic concert,” 3/11/15). As far as I know this is the first time The BDH or even Brown has discussed St. Vincent, and it’s a pretty interesting read. The writer (Kate Talerico) talks about St. Vincent’s galvanizing energy and compares her to a scuttling crab at one point. It’s the kind of weird indie-rock performance you’d expect from someone like St. Vincent, whose aesthetic and persona at the time was kind of wild and crazy but at the same time was making this excellent, weird, alternative pop.
When we look at MASSEDUCTION though, it’s apparent that she’s changed a lot both visually and sonically.
Josh Wartel: “Beautiful-strange—the curse of music,” as St. Vincent describes it at the end of The BDH piece.
JL: Yeah, definitely, but I think it leans more on strange this time.
JW: I’d agree; the only song she released in the past few years before the first single (“New York”) was a song she recorded for “Girls” called “Teenage Talk,” and it’s much more calming and sensitive in my view than anything on the new album.
JL: I’d say that some of the songs on MASSEDUCTION are still calming and sensitive, mostly the ballads like “New York” and also the opening track “Hang On Me,” but they’re undercut by this tangible tension and anxiety over heartbreak.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of these slower tracks on the album; I don’t think Jack Antonoff has quite figured out how to produce a good pop ballad that’s at the same level of her past ballads like “Severed Crossed Fingers.”
JW: Yes, I was thinking the same thing. St. Vincent’s ballads have the same dullness as the Antonoff-produced ballad on Lorde’s Melodrama (“Liability”). “New York” succeeds almost in spite of Antonoff because no one has ever drawn out the syllables of the word “motherfucker” quite like Annie Clark.
JL: In general, I’d say that MASSEDUCTION is divided into two halves, with “Los Ageless” being the centerpiece: The first half is more upbeat overall and conveys this maniacal routine of sex and drugs and partying, while the second half has her coming to terms with the impact of her lifestyle and so is appropriately slower and more melancholy.
JW: I mean, “Fear the Future” and “Young Lover” are absolute bangers, so I’m not sure how well this distinction holds up.
JL: Yeah, I guess it’s more of a thematic distinction than a…tempo one.
JW: And “Young Lover” is absolutely the best song on this album. It explodes into the chorus like a beautiful cousin of “Cruel.”
JL: I love how it builds steadily and almost sinisterly—it sounds like she’s stalking her prey or something.
JW: It’s basically a song about suicide that ends with her screaming with the pure pleasure of being alive.
JL: Personally, my favorite song from the album is “Los Ageless,” even if it’s a bit of a basic pick, but I really dig it. I like thinking of it as this centerpiece between the two halves of the album because it’s both about her destructive lifestyle (as she sings in the verses) but also about its effect (as she sings in the chorus) And the chorus is one of the best I’ve heard this year; I like how it’s essentially just one line repeated but with a little more of it revealed each time, but that small amount that’s revealed changes the meaning of the song each time.
JW: “How can anybody have you and lose you / how can anybody have you and lose and not lose your mind” is not exactly a breath of fresh pop-song air.
JL: I agree, but the way it’s delivered, with each part of the line being slowly unraveled, is really interesting to me.
JW: Another song I thought was a bit of a tired concept was “Pills.” It’s basically her version of Charlie XCX’s “Boys” but without the same swagger.
JL: I can definitely hear that. “Pills” mostly reminded me of the kind of basic satire of Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, but the second half changes it completely. I used to not like the second half because I just wanted an upbeat track, but it really grew on me; it’s like the withdrawal that comes after the high.
JW: A similar trance to the end of “Los Ageless” right?
JL: Yeah, for sure. Although the outro to “Los Ageless” hasn’t grown on me yet.
Some finals thoughts on the album:
JW: Although I could have used either more sing-along hooks or more personal anecdotes, the multi-layered arrangements of MASSEDUCTION are seductively summed up by a lyric from the title track: “I can’t turn off what turns me on.” Like she sings on “Smoking Section”: “It’s not the end.” I just hope more people can learn to love St. Vincent!
JL: In comparison to her previous work, MASSEDUCTION is a lot poppier, both in the music and in the accompanying visuals, and I think her particular gritty style gets largely enhanced with this change. It’s a great album that’s equal parts manic and depressive, but I also feel it would have been better with different production in the ballads (or no ballads at all) or a more meaningful criticism of society (or no criticism at all). But even with these flaws, I agree MASSEDUCTION is a turn-on that I can’t turn off.